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story.lead_photo.caption European Parliament Brexit chief Guy Verhofstadt (left) sits Wednesday beside European Union chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier during a Brexit Steering Group meeting at the European Parliament in Brussels. More photos are available at arkansasonline.com/1017eu/

BRUSSELS -- The European Union and Britain inched ever closer to a Brexit deal Wednesday, with the leaders of France and Germany saying they expected an agreement could be sealed within a day at an EU summit.

Positive vibes radiated from French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel at a joint news conference in Toulouse, France.

Merkel told reporters that negotiations were "in the final stretch." Macron said that "I want to believe that a deal is being finalized and that we can approve it" today, when EU leaders are due to meet British Prime Minister Boris Johnson in Brussels.

Differences between the two sides remained but were narrowing.

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"Good progress, and work is ongoing," EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier told reporters Wednesday evening as he prepared to brief the EU Parliament's Brexit steering group.

With Britain's Oct. 31 departure date looming and just hours to go before the EU leaders' summit, hopes were increasingly turning toward getting a broad political commitment, with the full legal details to be hammered out later. That could mean another EU summit on Brexit before the end of the month.

Negotiators were locked inside EU headquarters with few details leaking out. Wild movements in the British pound Wednesday underscored the uncertainty over what, if anything, might finally be decided.

Meetings between Barnier and key EU legislators as well as with ambassadors of the member nations were rescheduled for the evening -- an indication there was still momentum in the ongoing talks among technical teams from both sides.

The focus of recent talks has been the thorniest component of a deal: how goods and people will flow across the land border between EU member Ireland and Northern Ireland, which is part of the U.K.

So far, all plans to keep an open and near-invisible border between the two have hit a brick wall of opposition from Johnson's key Northern Irish ally, the Democratic Unionist Party. Leaders from the party met several times with the British prime minister Wednesday as he tried to win their support. Without it, any Brexit deal is likely to be rejected by Britain's Parliament -- which has already voted down prospective deals three times.

Johnson told Conservative Party lawmakers on Wednesday that he believed a deal was close.

Legislator Bim Afolami quoted the prime minister as saying "the summit is in sight, but it is shrouded in cloud. But we can get there."

Gallery: Brexit talks continue as negotiators edge closer to a draft deal

Northern Ireland is not the only issue. The eventual withdrawal agreement will be a legal treaty that also lays out other aspects of the U.K.'s departure -- including issues like the divorce bill Britain must pay to leave and the rights of U.K. and EU citizens living in each other's territories. It will set up a transition period in which relations would remain as they are now at least until the end of 2020, to give people and businesses time to adjust to new rules.

But the agreement will likely leave many questions about the future unanswered, and Britain's departure is sure to be followed by years of negotiations on trade and other issues.

Even if a deal is signed this week, moves in the British Parliament could still mean another delay to Britain's planned Oct. 31 departure.

U.K. lawmakers are determined to push for another delay rather than risk a chaotic no-deal departure that economists say could hurt the economies of both the U.K. and the EU. Parliament has passed a law ordering Johnson's government to seek to delay the departure if a deal isn't in place by Saturday.

Johnson has both promised to obey Parliament's order and vowed to leave the bloc on Oct. 31, deal or no deal.

Parliament has also repeatedly rejected previous attempts at a deal. With the need to get Parliament's approval looming over negotiations, EU leaders are seeking reassurances from Johnson during this week's summit that he has the political weight to push any new deal through the House of Commons, which is due to meet Saturday for its first weekend session in almost 40 years.

"Talks have been constructive, but there still remains a number of significant issues to resolve," EU Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos said after being briefed by Barnier.

Information for this article was contributed by Mike Corder, Gregory Katz, Lorne Cook, Sam Petrequin and Sylvie Corbet of The Associated Press.

A Section on 10/17/2019

Print Headline: Brexit deal close as talks progress

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