BRUSSELS (AP) — After the insults, the ultimatums, the red lines and accusations, the European Union and the U.K. have less than two weeks to really get down to business ahead of a crucial summit on their divorce.
And — just maybe — there is still time and willingness to stave off the “hard” Brexit — where Britain leaves the bloc without an agreement in place on March 29, 2019 — that everyone fears.
“We should get down to business,” EU Council President Donald Tusk said Thursday, realizing that a special Oct. 17 summit where major progress needs to be made to avoid the cliff-edge divorce is drawing precipitously close.
Tusk spoke Thursday after taking one last swipe at the nastiness of the past days, when British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said the EU shouldn’t try to prevent a smooth Brexit because “it was the Soviet Union that stopped people leaving.”
After months of unfruitful negotiations and increasingly testy encounters it had come to this — Britain’s top diplomat comparing the EU to the dreaded Soviets.
Tusk, who as a Pole has lived much of his life under Soviet influence, was not amused. He said the Soviet jibe was “as unwise as it is insulting.”
“The Soviet Union was about prisons and gulags, borders and walls, violence against citizens and neighbors. The EU is about freedom and human rights, prosperity and peace. Life without fear,” Tusk said, adding “I know what I am talking about.”
As the EU and Britain head into the negotiating finale, both sides have stuck to their seemingly irreconcilable views.
After its departure from the bloc in March, Britain would like to remain part of the EU’s seamless single market for goods but erect barriers for labor, capital and services. Tusk and the 27 other EU nations say they remain indivisible.
“No one can expect that, because of Brexit, the EU will give up its fundamental values and key interests,” he said.
The EU equally wants the current transparent border between EU member Ireland and the U.K.’s Northern Ireland to remain as invisible as possible, even though a U.K. departure would create an outside border for the EU there.
The Irish border question has proven the most intractable issue the negotiators have faced.
Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar visited Tusk and EU Brexit negotiators on Thursday. Varadkar says despite the difficulties “Ireland wants to protect the common travel area, ensure there is no hard border, protect the rights of citizens” on both sides of the border and maintain the closest of trading relations with Britain.
If both sides fail to get a breakthrough deal at the October summit, a tentative meeting has also been penciled in for November.
Since the European and the British parliament would still need time to approve the Brexit deal, officials say November is seen as an ultimate deadline.
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