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EU President cancels Israel trip amid Brexit breakthrough

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May and European Council President Donald Tusk attend a bilateral meeting during the Eastern Partnership summit at the European Council headquarters in Brussels, on November 24, 2017
CHRISTIAN HARTMANN (POOL/AFP)
Ireland is the key issue regarding how to keep a "soft" border and avoid undermining the peace deal

European Council President Donald Tusk has cancelled a trip to Israel and the West Bank this week as talks on Brexit deal neared a breakthrough, an EU official reported on Monday.

Preben Aamann, Tusks spokesman said that “due to a critical moment in the Brexit talks and due to consultations on draft guidelines for the second phase,” the trip on Tuesday has been called off, reported AFP.

According to his official schedule published last week, meetings had been set to take place in Jerusalem with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and separately in Ramallah with Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah on Wednesday.

With back and forth negotiations and little manifest progress, the Brexit talks have been plaguing Europe for the past few months. However on Monday, talks were said to have made last-minute progress on the thorny issue of the Irish border with Tusk stating that the EU and Britain were closer than ever to reaching a deal.

British Prime Minister Theresa May met with European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker on Monday and is set to meet Tusk in Brussels for what the bloc says is the “absolute deadline” for an improved offer from London.

A deal on the key divorce issues -- Ireland, Britain's divorce bill and the rights of EU nationals in Britain -- would allow the EU to approve the start of trade and transition talks at a summit on December 15.

"Tell me why I like Mondays!," Tusk said on Twitter hours before sitting down with May, saying he had been "encouraged" by a phone call with Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar on the negotiations.

"Getting closer to sufficient progress" at the December summit, he added.

JOHN THYS                  (AFP)

- Critical moment -

Ireland's state broadcaster RTE said the two sides had reached an agreement that there would be no divergence on the rules between north and south -- a key demand by Dublin -- although the language was yet to be finalised.

Varadkar -- who last week received Tusk's backing for an effective veto on a Brexit deal if Ireland was not happy -- said he would be making a statement about the first phase of talks later Monday.

London has however rejected the EU's deadline and, ahead of next week's summit, appears keen to push the talks to the wire.

"With plenty of discussions still to go, Monday will be an important staging post on the road to the crucial December Council," a British government spokesman said.

Luxembourg Prime Minister Xavier Bettel seemed to back Britain's position, saying that the decision was ultimately for the leaders of the remaining 27 countries.

"It seems to go into the right direction. I hope that the next hours will bring that. But it is as well not for Mr. Juncker and Mr. Barnier to decide", but for the EU summit next week, Bettel said

May, Brexit minister David Davis and the prime minister's Brexit adviser Olly Robbins are having lunch in Brussels with Juncker, EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier and Juncker's chief-of-staff Martin Selmayr. She will meet Tusk later.

A formal EU decision on any deal is not expected until Wednesday.

The remaining 27 EU states have demanded "sufficient progress" from Britain on the bill, citizens rights and Ireland in order to move on to talks on a post-Brexit transition period of up to two years, and on a future relationship including a trade deal.

Failure to do so this month could make the EU "rethink" whether an overall Brexit withdrawal deal is possible at all, Tusk has warned, raising the prospect of a chaotic exit with far-reaching economic effects.

Paul FAITH (AFP/File)

- Bill, citizens rights -

Ireland is now the key issue, especially the problem of how to keep a "soft" Irish-UK border when Britain is leaving the EU, and avoid undermining a peace deal that ended decades of sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland.

May faces pressure from Northern Irish unionists who prop up her minority Conservative government not to create a "new border" within British territory by creating special customs arrangements on the island of Ireland.

But after months of stalemate, London and Brussels have effectively reached a deal on the contentious issue of the divorce bill, reported to be between 45 and 55 billion euros ($53-63 billion).

They appear to have reached a compromise, with London increasing its offer, but Brussels offering enough wiggle room for the British government to be able to present its own, lower figures to the public.

A deal is also close on the rights of more than three million Europeans living in Britain, although there is still disagreement over whether they would be protected by the European Court of Justice -- a red line for Brexiteers in Britain.

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