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Just hours left to secure a Brexit deal before EU summit
[LUXEMBOURG] Britain must reach a Brexit agreement with the EU by the end of Tuesday so it can be approved at a leaders' summit this week, the bloc's officials and diplomats said, otherwise Britain's scheduled departure date of Oct 31 could be pushed back.
Officials said it was still possible to reach a deal over customs arrangements on the island of Ireland by the Tuesday deadline, and if it was missed, an extra summit could be called before the end of the month.
But they also said the EU must prepare for the possibility that a deal is not agreed, followed by a third extension of the tortuous divorce process.
Finland's EU minister said leaders at the EU summit on Thursday and Friday would discuss delaying the Brexit date beyond Oct 31.
"Talks are difficult but I believe an agreement is still possible," the European Union's chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, tweeted after talks in Luxembourg with ministers of the 27 member states that will remain in the EU.
However, Ireland's foreign minister made clear that the window was closing for an agreement to be sent to the EU leaders meeting for their approval.
"If there is going to be a deal at the summit, the task force and the EU negotiating team have to finalise the text and today is a key day in terms of being able to do that," Simon Coveney told reporters after the meeting with Mr Barnier.
The main sticking point remains the border between EU-member Ireland and the British province of Northern Ireland: how to prevent it becoming a backdoor into the EU after Brexit without erecting controls that could undermine the 1998 peace agreement that largely ended three decades of sectarian violence.
If London is unable to clinch an agreement, an acrimonious divorce could follow that would divide the West, roil financial markets and potentially lead to the United Kingdom splitting.
Even if he masters the complexities of the Irish border and wins the approval of Europe's big powers, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson must still sell any deal to the parliament in which he has no majority.
Mr Johnson, a leading figure in the 2016 referendum in which Britons opted to leave the EU, has pledged to take the United Kingdom out of the bloc on Oct 31 whether or not a withdrawal agreement has been reached.
But the British parliament has passed a law saying the country cannot leave without an agreement, and Mr Johnson has not explained how he can get around that.
British Brexit Minister Stephen Barclay struck a positive note as he arrived in Luxembourg, telling reporters: "Detailed conversation are underway and a deal is still very possible."
Earlier Finnish EU affairs minister Tytti Tuppurainen said the EU must prepare for the possibility that a deal is not agreed and the summit would discuss another Brexit delay. "All scenarios are open," she said.
As ministers met in Luxembourg, British Brexit negotiator David Frost started another round of negotiations with the EU's executive European Commission in Brussels. Britain was due to make new proposals in an attempt to break the Brexit deadlock, RTE said.
The main obstacle is around customs, with London proposing that Northern Ireland stays in the UK customs area but that EU tariffs are applied on all goods crossing from mainland Britain to the island.
Businesses would be eligible for a refund if it turns out their goods stay in Northern Ireland under the plan, which the EU has many doubts about, saying the system is too complicated, untested and not detailed enough at this stage.
The EU believes the only possible deal to be had at the summit is a return to a solution - already rejected by Britain previously - of keeping Northern Ireland in the bloc's customs union.
It would require a major shift from London and Mr Johnson will face Britain's parliament at a rare Saturday session after the summit. Parliament, like the country as a whole, is deeply divided over the issue.
Luxembourg's EU minister Jean Asselborn, said that there was some optimism that a deal could be clinched before the end of the day but if that was not possible another summit would be needed before the end of the month.
Deal or no deal, the EU believes another delay to Britain's Oct 31 departure date will be needed. Extension options range from as short as an extra month to half a year or longer. The other EU states would need to agree unanimously to grant it.
"Time alone is not a solution. However, if a significant political change takes place in the UK then that could potentially justify a discussion on an extension if we were asked for it," France's European affairs minister, Amelie de Montchalin, said.
Such a change could involve the prospect of an election or a new referendum, she said.
Mr Barnier will again meet national envoys of the 27 EU states staying on together on Wednesday in Brussels.