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EU summit takes Brexit battle into final straight

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Brussels (AFP)

European leaders meet Wednesday in Austria for a summit to put summer tensions over migration behind them and to set up the last stretch of talks for a Brexit deal.

The European Union's top officials face intense pressure over the next three months to seal a divorce deal and a plan for future ties with Britain to avert a chaotic exit in March.

EU negotiator Michel Barnier insisted Tuesday that a long-planned October 18 summit in Brussels remains the "moment of truth" for his team and his British counterpart.

But he appeared to tacitly accept that another meeting would follow in November when he said October would allow the leaders to see "if an accord is within reach and we'll see if the Irish issue is solved."

By "Irish issue" the French official meant efforts to ensure that Britain's decision to leave the EU does not create a "hard border" between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic.

The EU wants Northern Ireland's economic rules to stay aligned with the remaining 27 bloc members after Brexit as part of a "backstop", or insurance policy to avoid border checks that might undermine the Good Friday peace agreement.

But Britain, fearing the EU proposal would lead to a de facto break up its territory, has suggested that instead the whole UK remain aligned with the EU in certain areas, but only until the end of 2021.

- 'Improved proposal' -

Speaking in Brussels on the eve of Wednesday's get together, Barnier said: "Our proposal for the backstop on Ireland and Northern Ireland has been on the table since February."

But he added: "We are ready to improve this proposal."

Specifically, Barnier said that he would "clarify" which goods will have to be checked by customs officers as they are transported between mainland Britain and Northern Ireland.

"We can also clarify that most checks can take place away from the border, at the company premises or in the market," he said. "We need to de-dramatise the checks that are needed."

Whether this offer will be enough for Prime Minister Theresa May, whose parliamentary majority depends on support from Northern Ireland loyalists bitterly opposed to any weakening of links with the UK, remains in doubt.

As the British team prepared to set off, a senior Number 10 source said: "Neither side can demand the unacceptable of the other, such as an external customs border between different parts of the United Kingdom.

"No other country would accept it if they were in the same situation," the source added, insisting that the European Commission's proposal does not respect "the constitutional and economic integrity of the UK."

May will brief her 27 EU counterparts on the state of the Brexit talks at a dinner hosted by Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz on Wednesday.

The leaders will then meet without May on Thursday to discuss the hurdles to a deal and a parallel statement on future relations with Britain.

Diplomats expect little headway in Salzburg as both sides act cautiously before May's divided Conservative Party begins its annual conference on September 30.

- Future ties -

Officials say that 80 percent of the divorce settlement is agreed, but that progress must be made quickly on Ireland and on the parallel political statement that will lay out a blueprint for future relations.

London wants a detailed timetable for building trade ties in exchange for paying billions of euros the EU says it is owed in dues.

"We will discuss how to organise the final phase of the Brexit talks," EU Council President Donald Tusk said, in a letter inviting the 28 leaders to the informal summit.

They will consider, he added, "the possibility of calling" a special summit in November after having initially set October's formal summit as the deadline.

November would still give the British, European and member state parliaments enough time to debate and ratify the terms before March 2019, when Britain would otherwise crash out without a plan.

"Unfortunately, a no-deal scenario is still quite possible. But if we all act responsibly, we can avoid a catastrophe," wrote Tusk, who chairs the EU leader summits.

In Brussels for pre-summit briefings, Ireland's Foreign and Trade Minister Simon Coveney warned a deal must be found by the October summit instead of being allowed to drag into November.

- End 'mutual resentment' -

The summit will also seek to ease tensions over migration after a summer showdown with Italy's populist government and amid rising tensions with some eastern member states.

Italy has repeatedly turned away rescue ships carrying hundreds of African migrants to force other member countries to share responsibility for them.

Europe has yet to work out ways to implement proposals agreed in June to set up centres in Europe and north Africa to separate genuine refugees from economic migrants who could be deported.

"I am hoping that in Salzburg we will be able to put an end to the mutual resentment and return to a constructive approach," Tusk said.

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