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Feature: Brexit-lunch brings Britain and EU so close, yet so far on key deal
Last Updated: 2017-12-05 11:25 | Xinhua
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British Prime Minister Theresa May (L) and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker attend a press conference after their meeting on Brexit at EU headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, on Dec. 4, 2017. Despite continuous efforts and growing common grounds of Britain and the European Union, it was not possible to reach a complete agreement Monday, said Jean-Claude Juncker in a hastily arranged press conference with visiting British Prime Minister Theresa May. (Xinhua/Ye Pingfan)

With a three-pronged offer to unlock the next stage of the Brexit talks, British Prime Minister Theresa May headed here Monday morning for probably the most important lunch date of her life. At the other end of the lunch table sat European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.

Prior to her trip, British media had high expectations for major breakthroughs. A senior European Union (EU) diplomat told Politico Magazine the talks would be "difficult until the end" but added, "We've got four to five points still open, which all seem doable among rational people."

The Financial Times was also positive, reporting May was "on the brink of sealing a Brexit divorce deal." The Times definitely fancied her chances, quoting an EU official who believed the deal was "85 to 90 percent there."

When she stepped into the Berlaymont Building which serves as the European Commission headquarters, Juncker was waiting for her at the end of the corridor. With smiles on their faces, confidence was prevailing inside the building, and a deal seemed within touching distance.

For the second time, Juncker and May sat together at the dinner table. The food may have been as delicious as the last time they dined together in October, but the dinner talk was surely less palatable.

May's offer covered three key Brexit issues -- the "divorce" bill, the Irish border and citizens' rights.

Before her lunch offensive, the Guardian reported that Britain had bowed to a 50-billion-euro (59.34 billion-U.S.-dollar) deal with Brussels to move ahead with a future free trade agreement.

On Monday, the British national daily the Mirror reported that the British government was said to have agreed there will be continued "regulatory alignment" between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. This would mean, in effect, that Northern Ireland would continue to abide by all EU rules on trade and customs.

As to citizens' rights, the Guardian reported earlier that the British government appeared to concede that European law would take "direct effect" when it came to protecting the rights of EU nationals living in Britain, meaning they could appeal to British courts citing European law as enshrined in the withdrawal treaty.

Time was ticking, the reporters' agitation was rising, and so was their expectation for a breakthrough -- nobody wanted to keep waiting in the chilly Brussels winter. Fifty minutes later than expected, the two leaders walked out of their negotiation room at 4:50 p.m. local time (1550 GMT) and held an unexpected and hastily arranged briefing.

To everyone's surprise, the briefing lasted for merely three minutes. May and Juncker stood very close to each other on the platform, but they actually had very few words to share.

Despite continuous efforts and growing common ground between Britain and the EU, it was not possible to reach a complete agreement today, said Juncker.

Calling May a tough negotiator, he said he was confident that sufficient progress could be reached before the EU summit next week.

"This is not a failure, this is the start of the very last," he added.

Echoing Junker's optimism, May told reporters in the three-minute press conference that "we will conclude this positively."

"Crucially it is clear that we want to move forward together, but on a couple of issues differences do remain, which require further negotiation and consultation," said May. ' Not all powerful leaders were as optimistic as those two. President of the European Council Donald Tusk, who had waited for May almost one hour more than scheduled, tweeted his disappointment over the negotiation.

"I was ready to present draft EU27 guidelines tomorrow for #Brexit talks on transition and future. But UK and Commission asked for more time," he tweeted.

According to some local media, it was the Irish border issue that crashed the Brexit luncheon party. Earlier in the morning, the British and Irish governments thought they had a deal. Both agreed to a form of wording under which there would be "regulatory alignment" between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. But the problem is, Northern Ireland and the Republic would continue to have parallel systems rather than shared rules that might make unionists think that the two parts of Ireland were tiptoeing toward common government.

Later, May's ally the Democratic Unionist Party, the largest party in Northern Ireland that supports Britain leaving the customs union and the single market, made it clear that it is still extremely suspicious and not willing to accept the deal. Its leader has said that Northern Ireland must leave the EU "on the same terms as the rest of the UK" without any "regulatory divergence" that would separate Northern Ireland from the rest of Britain.

So, the proposed complete deal collapsed. Alas, so close yet so far.

But there is still a glimmer of hope -- the two sides will convene later this week in Brussels. "It is now getting very tight but agreement at December #EUCO (European Council) is still possible," said Tusk.

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