EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier was due to brief the ministers on his talks with his new British counterpart Dominic Raab, after their first meeting yesterday. Raab took up the job after a rebellion against Prime Minister Theresa May's Brexit blueprint, with the discord in London and slow pace of talks worrying many in Europe.
"Time is running out. The clock is ticking. That is why I'm a little bit nervous," Germany's European affairs minister Michael Roth said on arrival for the Brussels meeting.
Britain is set to leave the bloc on March 30, but the two sides want to strike an agreement by late October in order to give parliaments enough time to endorse a deal. The European Commission, the EU's executive arm, published a document yesterday urging the remaining 27 member states and businesses to "step up preparations" for all outcomes, including the lack of deal.
It warned of disruptions, including to business supply chains. Britons voted to leave the 28-nation bloc in June 2016, but negotiations were only launched a year later and have bogged down frequently since then.
Raab said in Brussels yesterday he looked forward to "intensifying, heating up" the Brexit negotiations. May's blueprint would see Britain ask the EU for a free trade area for goods through a "facilitated customs arrangement" alongside a "common rulebook".
EU ministers welcomed some but not all parts of the blueprint. They listed as a top concern the lack of progress on the future of the border between EU member Ireland and the British province of Northern Ireland.
Under its guidelines, the EU stipulates there should be no "hard border," such as customs checks, in order to preserve the gains of the Irish peace process.
"We have no solution yet" on Ireland, Luxembourg's minister Jean Asselborn told reporters. "And if we can't find a solution, I don't know how to bring Brexit to the goal," Asselborn said.
Standing with Raab yesterday, Barnier said there were only 13 months to finalise a withdrawal agreement. "It is a matter of urgency to agree on a legally operative backstop for Ireland and northern Ireland. We need an all weather insurance policy," he said.
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