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More Brussels talks as time runs out for Brexit deal

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Britain's Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay attends a meeting with European Union's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier at the EU Commission headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, September 27, 2019.

[BRUSSELS] Hopes for a negotiated Brexit deal were fading Friday as EU negotiator Michel Barnier separately met senior British and Irish ministers for another round of inconclusive talks.

Britain is due to leave the European Union in less than five weeks. Prime Minister Boris Johnson wants to hammer out a new divorce agreement in time for a European summit on October 17.

But his negotiator, Brexit Minister Stephen Barclay, has yet to present Brussels with any legal text for the eventual treaty, and time is running out.

"Well I think there are still significant gaps between both sides," Irish Deputy Prime Minister Simon Coveney said after his talks with Mr Barnier.

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"And until there is a serious proposal in writing that can be the basis for a negotiation then the gaps that are wide at the moment will remain."

After meeting Coveney in EU headquarters, Mr Barnier tweeted a reminder of the EU position before his sit-down with Mr Barclay began.

"We need a legally operative solution in the WA to address the problems created by #Brexit on island of Ireland," he said, referring to the withdrawal agreement.

He insisted that the other 27 EU member states remain firmly united behind the need to protect Ireland's Good Friday peace agreement and the EU single market.

This, as Johnson continues to insist that the deal must do away with the so-called "backstop" clause that his predecessor Theresa May agreed to in a previous Brexit deal.

That measure keeps the UK - or at least Northern Ireland - in the EU customs union until a way is found to keep the Irish border open.

But Johnson and the pro-Brexit MPs who rejected the previous withdrawal agreement argue that is a trap to keep Britain in the EU orbit.

The British leader, who has been in office since July and has yet to win a parliamentary vote, insists he would rather be "dead in a ditch" than delay Brexit.

"There is still a lot of work to do, but there is a common purpose to secure a deal, and a deal is doable" a UK spokesman said, as Mr Barclay's meeting got underway.

"Serious discussions are taking place and we must continue to move forward with momentum."

Initial optimism by some in Brussels that Mr Johnson's determined style would lead to a breakthrough have collapsed.

Many EU officials fear a chaotic "no-deal" departure is now imminent.

They privately scorn Mr Johnson's plan to somehow win over EU leaders to a backstop-free accord at the October 17 EU summit, pointing out that treaties - which are legally binding texts usually full of details - are not negotiated at such gatherings.

Traditionally, the text of any agreement is worked out between the negotiators beforehand and - when the member states' senior diplomatic "sherpas" have given the nod - the leaders come in to sign it.

In the case of Brexit negotiations, under the so-called Article 50 process of the EU treaty, the British leader is not even in the room when his 27 counterparts discuss the matter.

But the EU is keen to avoid taking the blame for any collapse in the talks. A spokeswoman for the European Commission stressed Friday that their side would remain flexible to the end.

Mina Andreeva told reporters that the EU side was working "day and night" for a deal, but warned that "the more progress before the European Council the better".

If there is no Brexit deal before October 31, Britain could ask for an extension, its third. But Mr Johnson insists that he will not do this, despite parliament passing a law obliging him to make such a request.

Some European leaders have expressed scepticism about the idea of postponing Britain's departure yet again, and Mr Coveney - whose country has much to lose economically from a no-deal - suggested they would need convincing.

"From an Irish perspective, we of course think that an extension is preferable to no deal," he said.

"But I think there would need to be good reason behind that ask for an extension."

AFP