LONDON - Britain's Brexit secretary has told lawmakers that he expects a long-elusive divorce deal with the European Union to be finalized before November 21, though there is still little sign of a breakthrough on the vexed issue of the Irish border.
Dominic Raab told Parliament's Exiting the EU Committee in a letter that he would give evidence to the panel “when a deal is finalized, and currently expect 21 November to be suitable.”
The committee released the October 24 letter Wednesday. Raab's Department for Exiting the European Union said later “there is no set date for the negotiations to conclude” and that the secretary mentioned November 21 in response to a suggestion that he appear before the committee on that date.
Britain is due to leave the EU on March 29, but London and Brussels have not reached an agreement on their divorce terms and a smooth transition to a new relationship. The stalemate has heightened fears that the U.K. might leave without a deal in place, leading to chaos at ports and economic turmoil.
Prime Minister Theresa May has said a Brexit deal is 95 percent done, but the two sides remain at odds over the issue of the border between the U.K.'s Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland.
Britain and the EU agree there must be no customs posts or other barriers that could disrupt businesses and residents on either side of the border and undermine Northern Ireland's hard-won peace process. But the two parties have rejected each other's proposed solution.
Raab said in his letter that “despite our differences, we are not far from an agreement on this issue.”
He said the U.K. and the EU agree “on the principle of a U.K.-wide customs backstop” - a plan to keep the U.K. in a customs union with the bloc, rendering border checks on goods unnecessary.
Britain has said such a solution must be temporary, while the EU wants a permanent fix. But Raab said agreement should be possible, and “the end is now firmly in sight.”
An October 17-18 EU summit that had been billed as the deadline for a breakthrough ended with the talks still deadlocked. But behind-the-scenes talks have continued.
Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said Wednesday in Paris that a deal in the next month was feasible, but “if they want to conclude the text of a withdrawal treaty in November, then the negotiations need to intensify.”
Any agreement reached by the two sides must be approved by the British and European parliaments.
May's proposed deal faces strong domestic opposition both from pro-Brexit lawmakers, who say it keeps Britain bound too closely to the bloc, and from pro-EU legislators, who argue it will create barriers between the U.K. and its biggest trading partner.