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Delay of Brexit from March 29 to June is 'very likely', says Irish PM

Dublin

IRISH Prime Minister Leo Varadkar has told Cabinet colleagues that a delay of Britain's exit date from the European Union from March 29 to June is "very likely", Ireland's Sunday Independent quoted an unnamed minister as saying.

"The Taoiseach (prime minister) has privately said to us that it is very likely there will be an extension until June," the minister was quoted as saying. A spokesman for Mr Varadkar did not respond to a request for immediate comment.

Meanwhile, the European Union is prepared to give Britain further Brexit guarantees to help a divorce deal through the British parliament, the bloc's chief negotiator Michel Barnier said in an interview published on Saturday.

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"We can find guarantees to confirm, clarify, guarantee the goodwill and good faith of the Europeans with commitments which would have real legal force," Mr Barnier said in comments published in several European newspapers including Die Welt in Germany and Les Echos in France.

Mr Barnier also suggested that European leaders would be amenable to a short "technical" delay in Britain's departure from the EU, scheduled for March 29, to give the British parliament time to formally ratify a final divorce deal. The British parliament rejected the original Brexit deal hammered out by Prime Minister Theresa May and EU leaders.

The major sticking point was the so-called "backstop" plan for the Irish border. Some MPs fear that the arrangement, which would keep Britain tied to EU trade rules until another way is found to keep the frontier open, is a "trap" that could bind it to European commerce rules indefinitely. Mr Barnier said that there was "misunderstanding" over the proposed backstop deal.

"Limiting it in time or introducing a unilateral exit clause would call into question its credibility," the EU's top Brexit negotiator insisted. The backstop "will end either when we have a global agreement on the future relationship, or a specific agreement with Ireland", he said, assuring that it "was never the wish" to bind Britain to European trade rules indefinitely.

Mr Barnier said that he would meet Britain's Brexit Minister Stephen Barclay and Attorney General Geoffrey Cox next week to discuss options. A Brussels source said that those talks could take place in the Belgian capital on Tuesday.

In 2017, Britain invoked Article 50 of EU law, triggering a two-year countdown to Brexit that ends at 11 pm (2300 GMT) on March 29.

The country is on course to leave without an agreement after British MPs in January overwhelmingly rejected the divorce deal that Mrs May struck with the EU late last year.

The embattled leader is now seeking changes to the pact which she hopes will be enough to get it through parliament by March 12. In a revised strategy unveiled last week, Mrs May vowed that if her deal is rejected, lawmakers will vote in the following days on whether to leave without a deal or delay Brexit. But European leaders have warned that any postponement would come with conditions.

Mr Barnier suggested that a short delay could be acceptable. "The European institutions will do whatever is necessary on their side, but the British have told us in the past that they will need two months to ratify" the deal. "It would then require a simple technical extension."

While Britain is yet to request a delay, "I don't think there would be any objections in principle" from the other 27 EU nations, Mr Barnier said. However, any delay "must serve to solve a problem, not merely to postpone it and remain at an impasse". REUTERS, AFP