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Where Things Stand As European Leaders Try To Reach An Agreement On Brexit


This evening in Brussels, European leaders are trying one more time to agree on terms for Brexit. But a key person is missing from tonight's talks, British Prime Minister Theresa May. Earlier today, May briefed her fellow European leaders on progress that negotiators have made so far. Then the other 27 leaders met over dinner without Mrs. May to decide what to do next.

NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is in Brussels watching the comings and goings at this summit. Hey, Soraya.


KELLY: Let me cut straight to the basic question, which is whether or not they're going to reach a deal before the U.K. is scheduled to depart the EU this coming March. Where does that stand?

NELSON: Well, that's the question that nobody seems to be able to answer tonight. Everyone's trying to put on an optimistic face. Chancellor Angela Merkel tonight said they're 90 percent of the way there.

KELLY: Merkel of Germany - go on.

NELSON: Correct. And - but the problem is that there's a key sticking point about where to basically put the border between the U.K. and the EU. You have to have a hard border with customs and passport control and that sort of thing. The border that they don't want is between Northern Ireland and Ireland, Ireland being part of the EU and Northern Ireland being part of the U.K. And so they can't agree, though, exactly where to put it elsewhere or who would run that border or that sort of thing. And that's what's holding everything up.

And it's really frustrating because everybody felt that this week was the week they had to come to a deal in order to get it enacted before Brexit happens on March 29 of next year. Slovak Prime Minister Peter Pellegrini captured the dire - or dour mood, as it were, the best, saying he's usually an optimistic person but not today.


PRIME MINISTER PETER PELLEGRINI: My hope was that today we will have already some concrete solution on the table, but it looks like it will not be a deal today.

NELSON: But he and other leaders are saying that they're keeping an open mind.

KELLY: What about Theresa May, the British prime minister? She's still sounding optimistic.

NELSON: Well, I would say she's the cheerleader today. I mean, she says that the U.K.'s position is still on the table. She feels that they're getting close. But she wouldn't say whether she's presenting any new proposals, which the EU council president, Donald Tusk, and other leaders want.


PRIME MINISTER THERESA MAY: The teams have been working very hard in order to ensure that we can address these issues. What we've seen is that we've solved most of the issues in the withdrawal agreement. I believe a deal is achievable and now is the time to make it happen.

NELSON: She also wouldn't say what she thought about extending the transition period the U.K. would have to leave the EU, which is something that some EU leaders, including the Irish prime minister, were talking about.

KELLY: Elaborate on that. I mean, what would that mean, to extend the transition period after Britain leaves the EU?

NELSON: Well, right now, the agreement is, more or less, that when the U.K. leaves on the 29 of March next year, that basically until the 31 of December the following year - in other words, 2020 - economic and trade deals between the U.K. and EU would remain unchanged. And now they're talking about extending it out another full year in order to increase the chance of negotiating a full treaty.

KELLY: And meanwhile, hanging over all this is the specter that Britain might leave the EU without a deal, might just crash out.

NELSON: Yeah. And that's something that everyone is quite worried about. Besides the fact you'd have snarled borders and price hikes for goods, it would be a problem for a lot of the countries, including Germany, for example, where analysts say that the costs could exceed $115 billion if there is a hard Brexit, as it were.

KELLY: A hundred-and-fifteen billion - wow. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reporting from Brussels - thank you, Soraya.

NELSON: You're welcome, Mary Louise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Special correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is based in Berlin. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and read at NPR.org. From 2012 until 2018 Nelson was NPR's bureau chief in Berlin. She won the ICFJ 2017 Excellence in International Reporting Award for her work in Central and Eastern Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan.
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