‘More work’ needed for Brexit deal

Main ob­sta­cle is goods flow­ing be­tween Repub­lic of Ire­land and North­ern Ire­land

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HEL­SINKI — The Euro­pean Union’s Brexit ne­go­tia­tor on Thurs­day said that gaps re­main to be bridged in talks on the

U.K.’s de­par­ture from the bloc as time runs out to se­cure a deal and have it en­dorsed. Bri­tain leaves the EU on March 29, but a deal must be sealed in the com­ing weeks to leave enough time for the U.K. Par­lia­ment and Euro­pean Par­lia­ment to sign off on it.

“We need much more work” to clinch an agree­ment, Michel Barnier told The As­so­ci­ated Press on the side­lines of a gath­er­ing of cen­tre-right po­lit­i­cal par­ties in Hel­sinki, Fin­land.

The main ob­sta­cle to an agree­ment is how to keep goods flow­ing smoothly across the bor­der be­tween the Repub­lic of Ire­land, an EU mem­ber, and North­ern Ire­land, which is part of the U.K. All par­ties have com­mit­ted to avoid a “hard bor­der” with costly, time-con­sum­ing bor­der checks that would ham­per busi­ness.

Any new cus­toms posts on the bor­der could also reignite lin­ger­ing sec­tar­ian ten­sions.

Fin­nish Prime Min­is­ter Juha Sip­ila said, how­ever, that ma­jor progress in Brexit talks was likely “within a week,” based on his dis­cus­sions with sev­eral vis­it­ing EU lead­ers and Euro­pean Coun­cil Pres­i­dent Don­ald Tusk, who chairs sum­mits of the EU’s 28 lead­ers.

“We’re go­ing through cru­cial days now. We’re very close now,” Sip­ila told re­porters.

Euro­pean lead­ers are await­ing Barnier’s as­sess­ment as to whether suf­fi­cient progress has been made in the Brexit ne­go­ti­a­tions for an EU sum­mit to be con­vened to an­nounce a deal. Ru­mours are swirling that one might take place by the end of Novem­ber, weeks ahead of a pre­planned EU sum­mit in mid De­cem­ber, but Barnier de­clined to say when or if that would hap­pen.

In Paris, Bri­tain’s for­eign sec­re­tary, Jeremy Hunt, said Brexit ne­go­ti­a­tions are in “the fi­nal phase,” and he is con­fi­dent an agree­ment will be reached.

“Seven days is prob­a­bly push­ing it, but I am op­ti­mistic that there will be a Brexit deal,” Hunt said, adding it is “very, very dif­fi­cult to re­solve, but I am con­fi­dent that we can.”

Euro­pean Com­mis­sion Pres­i­dent Jean-Claude Juncker, in Hel­sinki, said that Bri­tish Prime Min­is­ter Theresa May “is, as we are, de­cided to have the deal, and we will have a deal.”

Later, ad­dress­ing lead­ers of the Euro­pean Peo­ple’s Party group, Barnier warned of the threat that ris­ing na­tion­al­ism and pop­ulism pose to the EU ahead of Euro­pean Par­lia­ment elec­tions in May. He re­ferred to Nigel Farage, the for­mer U.K. In­de­pen­dence Party leader who helped con­vinced many Bri­tons to vote for Brexit.

“This elec­tion will be tougher than those be­fore,” Barnier said. “We will have to fight against those who want to de­mol­ish Europe — their fear, their pop­ulist de­ceit, their at­tacks against the Euro­pean project. There is now a Farage in ev­ery coun­try.”

The Euro­pean elec­tions will be the first of the post-Brexit era.

Europe’s in­ca­pac­ity to man­age mi­gra­tion has fu­elled far-right sen­ti­ment across the con­ti­nent, and many worry that na­tion­al­ists might make more progress in May. The slow pace of Brexit talks and the stand­off be­tween the EU and Italy over the bud­get plans of the pop­ulist govern­ment in Rome are reminders of the kinds of up­heavals that might oc­cur if disen­chanted Euro­pean vot­ers look to the right or far­right for an­swers.

MARTTI KAINULAINEN THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

EU chief Brexit ne­go­tia­tor Michel Barnier, left, takes part in a joint press con­fer­ence with Fin­nish Prime Min­is­ter Juha Sip­ila at the Prime Min­is­ter's of­fi­cial res­i­dence Kes'ranta in Hel­sinki, Fin­land.

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