Britain should get divorce deal with EU done by Nov. 21 – Raab

UK

LONDON (Reuters) – A Brexit deal is now firmly in sight and should be finalised by Nov. 21, Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab said in a week-old letter to a lawmaker that was published on Wednesday and briefly sent sterling sharply higher.

FILE PHOTO: Britain’s Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union Dominic Raab arrives in Downing Street in London, Britain, October 29, 2018. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls

With just five months until Britain is due to exit the European Union, little is clear: Prime Minister Theresa May has yet to clinch a divorce deal and rebels in her Conservative party – both eurosceptic and pro-EU – have threatened to vote down any deal she does make.

Raab, in a letter dated Oct. 24 and sent to Hilary Benn, chairman of parliament’s Brexit committee, said the United Kingdom and EU had resolved most differences, though the issue of Northern Ireland remained.

“I would be happy to give evidence to the Committee when a deal is finalised, and currently expect 21 November to be suitable,” Raab said, in response to a request to appear in front of lawmakers.

“The end is now firmly in sight and, while obstacles remain, it cannot be beyond us to navigate them. We have resolved most of the issues.”

Asked about Raab’s remarks in the letter, a spokesman for May reiterated that Britain wanted to clinch a Brexit deal as soon as possible. “I can’t go beyond repeating, as I have done many times, that we’ve always said we want to conclude this as soon as possible,” he said.

The major obstacle to a deal has been Britain’s wish to keep the border of its province of Northern Ireland with EU member state Ireland open – preserving frictionless trade and a 1998 peace deal that ended Irish sectarian violence – while sticking to its goal of leaving the EU’s single market and customs union so as to forge its own trade deals around the world.

Sterling GBP=D3 surged as much as one percent versus the dollar to trade at $1.2831, and versus the euro to 88.43 pence EURGBP=D3 after Raab’s comments, before retreating.

Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said a deal on Britain’s withdrawal was possible by Nov. 21 but that it would require British negotiators in particular to step up efforts.

“I think it is possible to get a deal in November,” Coveney told a joint press conference with French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian in Paris.

But Coveney said Britain must make good on its past commitments, including on an open Irish border and a “backstop” clause to anchor it in law, for negotiators to reach an accord.

“If there is no follow through on those commitments, then it is hard to see how this gets done in November,” he said.

Raab said four important aspects remained to be resolved: a temporary joint UK-EU customs territory; an option to extend a transition period during which Britain’s EU membership conditions would remain unchanged; a measure to ensure any extension was not indefinite; and continued untrammeled access for Northern Irish businesses to the rest of the United Kingdom.

EU Brexit negotiators told national envoys in Brussels on Wednesday that technical talks were still focusing on the Irish issue. They will give another update next week and the bloc will also hold seminars from mid-November to prepare for a “no-deal” Brexit, a disruptive outcome that both sides say is undesirable.

Sources in Brussels were still hopeful a deal could be sealed in November once Britain has passed its budget.

Reporting by Guy Faulconbridge with additional reporting by Gabriela Baczynska in Brussels and Richard Lough in Paris; Editing by Andrew MacAskill and Mark Heinrich

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