Sterling gains after EU's Barnier says Brexit deal 90 pct done

Associated Press

EU Brexit chief Michel Barnier has warned that a deal could fall at the final hurdle if a solution isn't found to the Irish border issue.

"Ninety percent of the accord on the table has been agreed with Britain", Barnier told France Inter radio.

British Prime Minister Theresa May and other European Union leaders voiced renewed confidence on Thursday they could secure a Brexit deal, saying they were working hard to overcome the hurdles that only days ago brought the talks to a halt.

On the issue of extending Britain's transition period, he said: "I'm open to the idea of an extension or a longer transition period, but that's not an alternative to a legally binding Irish backstop".

May has signalled that she would consider extending the Brexit transition period "for a matter of months" after Britain leaves the European Union in March, to iron out remaining issues.

"We are talking in a matter of months, we are not talking in a matter of years", he said.

That more positive atmosphere was echoed by other European Union officials, saying May appeared to show greater understanding for some of the EU's concerns, including Ireland's need for an insurance "backstop" to avoid a hard border with Northern Ireland - the key stumbling block so far in the talks.

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Tusk has made it clear that if May and Barnier do not offer signs of concrete progress towards a draft deal he will not call a November summit to sign it. Under the current proposal, the United Kingdom would effectively be a non-member: it would remain part of the single market and customs union, but would no longer be represented in EU institutions.

Mrs May declined to put any fixed date on the possible extension to the UK's transition period, which she has said could last "a matter of months" into 2021.

Such a border would violate the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) or Belfast Agreement that Northern Ireland's present devolved system of government is based on.

"I think where there is a will, there is a way", German Chancellor Angela Merkel is reported to have said, while it is thought the President of the EU Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, told leaders May needs "help" to sell a deal back in Blighty.

In a note to clients on Friday, RBC analysts said there had been no improvement in Britain's export performance despite sterling tumbling and remaining weak since the British voted to leave the European Union in 2016.

Japanese vehicle firms warned that failing to reach a Brexit deal must be "avoided at all costs".

And one person familiar with the discussions said May's Tory party would find it hard to be fighting the next general election - due in 2022 - while the country is still inside the single market and customs union.

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Britain needed "to decide finally what they want and to rally behind the Prime Minister all together, not split", she said, adding: "Today we do not know what they want".

The Tanaiste said concerns about the potential to destabilise the island's "very precious peace" were real, and reflected the fears of people living on the border.

Stephen Martin, IoD director general, said the PM did not say if the possibility of extending the transition period was being seriously considered. They do not know themselves what they want.

The proposed extension was also criticised by Tory MPs, including arch-Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg who branded the idea "a rather poor attempt at kicking the can down the road".

No EU leader reacted to May's speech, as has been the tradition with the Brexit discussions at EU level.

Mrs O'Neill said: "In order to preserve her toxic alliance with the DUP, she is trampling over the rights of citizens by acquiescing to that party's refusal to share power (at Stormont) on the basis of equality". They say the proposal would tear Northern Ireland from the rest of Britain.

Both sides agree there must be no hard border, but each has rejected the other side's solution.

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