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UK and EU to step up Brexit talks as Parliament showdown looms

Sep 01 2019 13:24
Jessica Shankleman and Ian Wishart

United Kingdom Prime Minister Boris Johnson's Brexit team will meet with European Union officials at least twice a week in September as he seeks to break the current impasse and ward off a rebellion in his own party against a no-deal divorce.

Johnson's top Brexit negotiator, David Frost, asked the EU to intensify talks at a meeting with European Commission officials in Brussels on Wednesday, a spokesman for the Commission said.

But both sides appeared to play down the chance of an imminent breakthrough. They "remain some distance apart on key issues," Johnson's office said in a statement. The EU said it is still awaiting "concrete proposals" from the UK.

On Thursday, Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen said the EU should be "as flexible and positive as possible" in its negotiations over Brexit, should the UK come up with "specific suggestions" on how it intends to leave the bloc with a deal.

Johnson needs to convince potential rebels in his own Conservative Party that he is close to agreeing a deal with the bloc ahead of a showdown in Parliament when it reconvenes next week.

'Incredibly Tight'

Some Tories, including former Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond, have threatened to vote against the government in the House of Commons to block a no-deal Brexit, but might be persuaded to hold off if an agreement appears to be on the horizon.

"It is now time for both sides to step up the tempo," Johnson said in the statement.

"The increase in meetings and discussions is necessary if we are to have a chance of agreeing a deal for when we leave at the end of October, no ifs no buts".

On Thursday, Labour's Treasury Spokesman John McDonnell said he's "increasingly confident" there's a cross-party majority in Parliament for legislation seeking to block a no-deal Brexit, but warned that people shouldn't underestimate the difficulty of winning approval within the "incredibly tight timetable" Johnson has set.

Johnson got approval from Queen Elizabeth II on Wednesday to suspend Parliament from mid-September to mid-October, restricting the time for MPs to debate the divorce from the bloc.

Rebels' Options

That's spurred some MPs to say they will take action to block a no-deal exit as soon as next week. Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn said he'd joined with other opposition parties to issue a joint call for a vote on Johnson's plan to prorogue parliament.

Tory rebels are considering a range of options, including seeking to seize control of the order paper next week to block a no-deal Brexit, and as a back up option are trying to arrange for Parliament to sit during the weekend of September 7-8, the Times of London reported.

The decision to step up talks with the EU comes after Johnson's government spotted a chink of light last week during meetings with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron.

The two leaders appeared to relax their language on the Brexit withdrawal agreement and the need to retain the so-called backstop provision for the Irish border, a UK official said Tuesday on condition of anonymity.

Johnson has demanded the EU drop the backstop, a fallback mechanism that is meant to keep the frontier free of checks after Brexit but which is despised by Brexiteers who argue it will keep the UK tied to the bloc.

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