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EU officials publish contingency plans for a 'no-deal' Brexit

Daniel Leal-Olivas, AFP | People wave British and EU flags outside the Houses of Parliament in London, October 2018.

EU officials published a contingency plan on Tuesday for a 'no-deal' Brexit as negotiators scrambled to secure agreement in the next 24 hours, even as Britain said there were still a "small number" of issues to resolve.

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In one measure, Brussels said it will offer visa-free travel within the bloc to Britons, but warned this was "entirely conditional on the UK also granting reciprocal and non-discriminatory visa-free travel to EU citizens travelling to the UK".

After British and EU negotiators spent another night locked in talks, Prime Minister Theresa May told her cabinet in London that there had been progress but no text was yet ready for approval.

The value of the pound rose after May's deputy David Lidington told the BBC earlier on Tuesday that a deal was "still possible, but not definite" by Wednesday evening.

British officials say a deal must be agreed by then if Brussels is to call an extraordinary European Union summit later this month to sign off the agreement.

Failure means delaying the deal until a summit in mid-December, leaving little time for May to get it through a fractious House of Commons before Brexit day on March 29.

"The prime minister told cabinet that since it has last met (a week ago), negotiations had continued in Brussels and good progress had made," May's spokesman said.

"However the prime minister said there remained a small number of outstanding issues as the UK pushes for the best text which can be negotiated."

A government official said "it's closer than it was yesterday".

Lidington also on Tuesday promised the government would publish legal analysis on any divorce agreement after it is announced, following pressure from the main opposition Labour Party.

'Staged-managed delay'

Former foreign secretary Boris Johnson, a leading eurosceptic who quit the government in July over May's plan, accused the prime minister of theatrics.

"No one is fooled by this theatre. Delay after staged managed delay. A deal will be reached and it will mean surrender by the UK," he tweeted.

The talks with Brussels are stuck on how to avoid border checks between British Northern Ireland and Ireland after the UK leaves the EU's single market and customs union.

>> Read more: PM May makes Brexit plea as EU steps up plans for no deal

London suggests that until a wider trade deal is agreed that resolves the problem, Britain could temporarily stay aligned with the bloc's trade rules -- as long as it can exit the arrangement when it wants.

The EU appears only ready to accept that if Britain agrees another fall-back option in which Northern Ireland alone remains part of the single market.

May's Northern Irish allies in the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), strongly oppose this, arguing that it undermines the integrity of the United Kingdom.

Pro-Brexit MPs like Johnson also fear Britain could end up being locked in an endless customs union with the EU.

Firm stockpiles ingredients

Opposition in parliament to May's plan has raised fears the Brexit deal will be rejected and Britain will leave the EU without any agreement.

The cabinet received an update on Britain's preparedness for a "no deal" scenario, as it has for several weeks now, with speculation that the moment to trigger the plan is fast approaching.

Leading food manufacturer Premier Foods revealed on Tuesday it will start stockpiling ingredients.

"In the absence of certainty over the arrangements for the UK's departure from the EU, the group shortly intends to start a process of building stocks of raw materials to protect the company against the risk of delays at ports," it said.

Elements of the divorce deal already agreed include Britain's exit bill of around £39 billion (45 billion euros, $50 billion) as well as a guarantee on EU citizens' rights.

May has guaranteed Europeans living in Britain that they will be able to stay after Brexit, no matter what.

But new figures show the number of EU nationals working in Britain fell by 132,000 to 2.25 million, the largest annual fall since comparable records began in 1997.

The divorce deal also provides for a 21-month transition after Brexit during which London would follow EU rules, in which both sides can negotiate a new trade relationship.

(AFP)

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