LUXEMBOURG (AP) — European Union and British foreign ministers expressed cautious optimism Monday that a deal on Britain’s departure from the bloc will be found soon but virtually ruled out any Brexit agreement at a crunch summit this week.
Talks between the two sides on Sunday failed to bridge important gaps, notably on how to keep goods flowing freely between EU member state Ireland and Northern Ireland, which is in the U.K., after Britain officially leaves.
Britain officially exits the EU on March 29, but a deal must be clinched in coming weeks to allow time for the EU and U.K. parliaments to ratify it. No new meetings between ambassadors are scheduled before EU presidents and prime ministers meet in Brussels on Wednesday.
“There are one or two very difficult outstanding issues, but I think we can get there,” British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt told reporters in Luxembourg where EU foreign ministers are meeting. “Whether we do this week or not, who knows?”
“Everyone is trying incredibly hard. I think it is possible to do it and I think with goodwill on both sides we can get there,” he said.
Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Borrell said “it seems that this week it will not be possible, but this week is not the end.”
“We will keep negotiating,” Borrell said. “It is difficult for me to believe that we will not be able to reach an agreement.”
He said that he foresees no problems between Britain and Spain over Gibraltar.
“It’s not a rock in the way,” Borrell said, referring to the nickname of the territory bordering Spain. He added that the Irish border problem is “more difficult to solve than Gibraltar.”
Slovak Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajcak said: “There is no reason to panic. There is still time.”
British Prime Minister Theresa May is under intense pressure from her Conservative Party and its parliamentary allies not to give any more ground in negotiations, especially on the border issue.
The lack of a breakthrough on the border increased the chances that the Brexit negotiations will fail to produce an agreement spelling out how the EU will interact with its former member and vice versa. EU officials had warned that real progress was needed at this week’s summit.
Lorne Cook in Brussels contributed to this report.