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Wall Street Journal / News - Politics

U.K., European Union Move Closer on Divorce Terms

The U.K. and EU appeared close to a breakthrough on Brexit terms, with British Prime Minister Theresa May on her way to Brussels on Friday morning.


Laurence Norman

BRUSSELS—The U.K. government and the European Union appeared close to a breakthrough on Brexit divorce terms, with British Prime Minister Theresa May on her way to Brussels on Friday morning.

Negotiations have been going on throughout this week, with time running out for Britain and the EU to agree to divorce terms in time for EU leaders next week to allow Brexit talks to advance. EU officials have said terms must be agreed upon this week.

The biggest sticking point has been how to avoid the return of a hard border in Ireland, with Britain’s Democratic Unionist Party blocking a deal the U.K. and EU had worked out on Monday. Mrs. May’s Conservative Party depends on the Northern Irish party’s support for its majority in Parliament.

A spokesman for European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker on Thursday evening said the EU chief had spoken by phone with Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar and Mrs. May.

“We are making progress but not yet fully there. Talks are continuing throughout the night. Early morning meeting possible.…Tonight more than ever, stay tuned,” Margaritis Schinas said.

Early Friday, the European Commission issued a statement saying Mrs. May would be in Brussels to meet with Mr. Juncker at 0600 GMT. A press conference is scheduled to take place from 0630-0700 GMT.

A Downing Street spokesman confirmed the conversation between Mrs. May and Mr. Juncker and said the British prime minister had also spoken Thursday evening with Mr. Varadkar.

“Discussions about taking forward the Brexit process are ongoing,” the spokesman said.

Monday’s talks broke down on a crucial point about the future of Northern Ireland, which is part of the U.K., and the Republic of Ireland.

Britain and the EU were close to agreeing on text that would have committed Britain to providing broad regulatory alignment between Northern Ireland and the south after Brexit if needed.

That would have meant that EU rules on sectors like agriculture and animal health would largely survive in Northern Ireland after Brexit, averting the need for customs checks and the return of a hard border. Britain has pledged not to allow a hard border to return on the island of Ireland as part of efforts to uphold the 1998 Good Friday peace Agreement, which ended decades of conflict.

However, the DUP said Monday’s draft agreement was unacceptable, forcing talks to break off.

Mrs. May has been speaking to DUP leader Arlene Foster this week.

The EU has said sufficient progress must be made on three divorce issues—citizens’ rights, a Brexit financial settlement and the Irish border issue—to allow talks to start on future trade arrangements between Britain and the EU and a post-Brexit transitional period. Britain plans to leave the bloc in March 2019.

Write to Laurence Norman at laurence.norman@wsj.com