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Johnson repeats Brexit vow as EU talks reach critical point

Prime Minister Boris Johnson repeated Monday that Britain must leave the EU on October 31, as divorce talks resumed in Brussels in a pivotal week that could define how and when Brexit finally happens.

In an elaborate ceremony in parliament in London, Queen Elizabeth II set out Johnson’s legislative programme for the coming year, with leaving the EU top of the agenda.

“My government’s priority has always been to secure the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union on October 31,” she said in a speech to robed peers from a gilded throne in the upper House of Lords.

“My government intends to work towards a new partnership with the European Union, based on free trade and friendly cooperation.”

But this depends on the outcome of closed-door discussions in Brussels, where officials are racing to reach a deal on Britain’s exit terms before a summit of EU leaders starting on Thursday.

If he cannot get a deal by Saturday, Johnson will fall foul of a British law demanding he ask the EU to delay Brexit for a third time rather than risk a potentially disastrous “no deal” departure.

“A deal is possible and it’s possible this month,” Irish Deputy Prime Minister Simon Coveney said as he arrived for talks with EU foreign ministers in Luxembourg.

“It may even be possible this week but we’re not there yet.”

Michel Barnier, the bloc’s chief Brexit negotiator, briefed EU ambassadors late Sunday after a weekend of talks between officials described as “intense” and “constructive”.

After weeks of gloom, the last few days have given a glimmer of hope that an agreement can be reached but there has so far been no decisive breakthrough.

Barnier warned on Sunday that “a lot of work remains to be done”, a message echoed by Johnson’s spokesman in London on Monday.

More than three years after the 2016 referendum vote to leave the EU, divorce talks remain stuck on how to avoid customs checks between British Northern Ireland and Ireland.

After British MPs rejected a previous plan, Johnson put forward fresh proposals earlier this month — but they have been met with a cool response in Brussels.

– ‘Farce’ –

Johnson took office in July vowing no more delays to Brexit, after his predecessor Theresa May twice postponed in a failed attempt to get her own divorce deal through the British parliament.

But he has no majority in the House of Commons and even if he gets an agreement with Brussels, would struggle to get it passed by hostile MPs.

In a statement issued alongside the Queen’s Speech, Johnson said the British public were “tired of stasis, gridlock and waiting for change”.

As well as a commitment to Brexit, his plans included a raft of domestic measures, from tackling domestic violence to plastic pollution, and set November 6 as a date for a new budget.

But Johnson is likely to face opposition to his plans when they come to a vote next week, although his spokesman insisted that even if he were defeated, he would not resign.

His minority government is powerless even to call an election without the support of opposition parties.

Opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said Monday that Johnson’s agenda was a “farce” but repeated that he would not back an election until he had delayed Brexit.

“Get an extension, take us away from the dangers of a no deal and then we’re in a position to do that,” he said.

– Comply with the law –

Some resolution is expected when the British parliament holds its first Saturday sitting since the 1982 Falklands War.

A law passed against Johnson’s wishes last month requires him to ask the EU to delay Brexit by three months if MPs have not approved a Brexit deal or a “no deal” departure by October 19.

Johnson could theoretically refuse, although he would face an immediate court challenge.

“The prime minister must comply with the law if a deal does not pass this house,” Corbyn said.

EU leaders could complicate matters further still by deciding to offer Britain extension terms that parliament cannot accept.

But Brussels insists the ball is now in Johnson’s court.

“If the British government wants a solution, it must move quickly now,” a European diplomat told AFP. “The clock is ticking,”