BBC : Brexit: Raab and Barnier hold talks to resolve 'big issues'

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Dominic Raab and Michel BarnierImage copyright Reuters

Brexit negotiators have met to try to resolve "big issues" ahead of a crunch summit of EU leaders this week.

The unscheduled talks between the UK's Dominic Raab and the EU's Michel Barnier, lasting more than an hour, focused on Northern Ireland and other outstanding areas of difference.

Government sources have played down media reports a deal has been done.

It comes as domestic political pressure on Theresa May increases amid threats of potential cabinet resignations.

In a letter to the prime minister, Scottish Secretary David Mundell and Scots Tory leader Ruth Davidson said they would not accept Northern Ireland being treated differently than the rest of the UK in any Brexit deal.

It follows reports that other top ministers have been considering their positions over the weekend ahead of a meeting of the cabinet on Tuesday at which ministers could be asked to give their consent to any agreement.


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Media captionHealth Secretary Matt Hancock spoke to Andrew Marr about Brexit negotiations

The Raab-Barnier meeting came amid conflicting signals as to whether the two sides were nearing a deal on the terms of the UK's exit next March.

Diplomats from the remaining 27 EU member states were summoned for an update on the process at 17.30 BST, prompting feverish speculation that a deal had been done.

But the BBC understands that "difficult issues" remain over Northern Ireland, while Reuters quoted EU diplomats as saying that an agreement was not imminent.

Adam Fleming on what's next for the talks?

  • The EU's aim is to have the entire Withdrawal Agreement agreed in principle in time for Wednesday's summit of EU leaders in Brussels.
  • If the EU's 27 - as they are known - agree on it, then work will begin on drafting the political declaration on the future relationship.
  • EU leaders are likely to call another summit in mid-November, at which the withdrawal deal and the framework of future co-operation could be finally approved.
  • The deal would then have to be approved by the UK and EU Parliaments.

The BBC's Brussels reporter Adam Fleming said that while Mr Raab's visit had an air of drama, it was standard practice in the talks for civil servants to hand over to politicians at key points like this.

Rather than a "victory lap" by Mr Raab, he said the UK's statement that "face-to-face talks were necessary to resolve several big issues" should be taken at face value, and Northern Ireland remained a "sticking point".

The issue of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, which will become the UK's border with the EU, is one of the last remaining obstacles to achieving a divorce deal with Brussels.

Wrangling is continuing over the nature of a "backstop" to keep the border open if a wider UK-EU trade arrangement cannot resolve it.

The EU's version, which would see just Northern Ireland remain aligned with Brussels' rules, has been called unacceptable by Mrs May and her Democratic Unionist allies.

And many Conservative MPs are unhappy with the UK government's proposed alternative, which would see the UK temporarily remain in a customs union until the Irish border question is resolved, either through technological solutions or as part of a wider trade agreement.

Brexiteers fear this will leave the UK in indefinite limbo, bound by the EU's rules and limited in the trade deals it can negotiate with other countries.

Writing in the Sunday Times, former Brexit Secretary David Davis urged ministers to "exert their collective authority" and reject the plans at a cabinet meeting on Tuesday.

But Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, who has been hosting other European foreign ministers at his Chevening residence, said such calls were "wrong" when "last-minute" talks were going on and Mrs May was "battling for Britain".

"The reason that's wrong is there is no-one who is going to be able to negotiate the right deal for Britain better than Theresa May. This is the time to stand rock solid behind Theresa May."

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In their letter to the PM, Mr Mundell and Ms Davidson indicated they would not tolerate a situation in which Northern Ireland remained in the customs union and single market, while the rest of the UK was outside it.

They said the integrity of the UK "remains the single most important issue for us" and cannot be undermined by any withdrawal agreement with the EU.

A source close to Ms Davidson said the issue was a "red line" for her, while a source close to Mr Mundell told the BBC: "If you find yourself not agreeing with government policy" resigning would be the "logical outcome".

Health Secretary Matt Hancock, in an interview with the BBC's Andrew Marr show, insisted there were "different ways" to ensure any customs commitments were "credibly time-limited".

And Scottish First Minister and SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon, who wants Scotland to remain in the EU, has questioned whether Mr Mundell and Ms Davidson had "the gumption" to resign.

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