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Brexit countdown: UK parliament to sit on a Saturday for first time in 37 years

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Leo Varadkar with Boris Johnson in Dublin, Ireland, September 9, 2019.
Leo Varadkar with Boris Johnson in Dublin, Ireland, September 9, 2019. -
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Britain's government has announced plans to hold an emergency session of parliament on October 19 — its first Saturday sitting in 37 years — despite EU leaders giving a pessimistic assessment of the finding a deal for lawmakers to approve.

An official said parliament would sit on the day regardless of whether a divorce agreement with the EU has been reached.

The last time the House of Commons sat on a Saturday was during the Falklands War in 1982 and before that, the Suez Crisis of 1956.

Parliament has passed a law to force Johnson to seek a Brexit delay if he fails to negotiate a new deal with the EU at a summit on Oct. 17-18. Johnson has said he will abide by the law but has also stood firm in his pledge to lead Britain out of the EU on Oct. 31 no matter what.

Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar says he held a 45-minute conversation with Boris Johnson during a day of acrimonious exchanges between London and EU leaders, which left talks between London and Brussels on life support.

He told RTE News that there was a "wide difference" of opinion over the UK proposals for a Brexit deal, but that he would continue to "work until the very last moment" to secure an agreement. The two leaders are expected to meet in person later this week.

Varadkar defended the EU's stance, following accusations from Downing Street that he had reneged on commitments. "I don't play dirty and I don't think most EU leaders do either," he replied when asked whether Brexit language was becoming more toxic.

Read more: Ireland unveils €1.2 billion fund to counter impact of a no-deal Brexit

Day of acrimony

Brexit talks appeared to be close to collapse on Tuesday, with the European Parliament President affirming that "there are two alternatives to a deal at this juncture: extension or no deal".

In a statement released following a meeting with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson in London, David Sassoli said that "there has been no progress" towards finding a deal that would ensure an orderly exit of the UK from the bloc.

"We have examined the UK proposals to replace the original backstop and our response is that these are a long way from something to which the Parliament could agree. In addition, they are not immediately operable," he added in Tuesday evening's statement.

His remarks come hours after Downing Street said German Chancellor Angela Merkel had told them a deal was "overwhelmingly unlikely", prompting EU officials to accuse Britain of trying to play a "stupid blame game".

A British source told Reuters that "Merkel said that if Germany wanted to leave the EU they could do it no problem but the UK cannot leave without leaving Northern Ireland behind in a customs union and in full alignment forever".

The German leader also reportedly told her British counterpart that she thinks the EU has a veto on Britain leaving the customs union.

Read more:

Why is Boris Johnson’s latest Brexit plan a headache for the EU? | Euronews Answers

Brexit Guide: Where are we now?

The British leader has repeatedly said he wants the UK to leave the bloc by October 31, with or without an agreement in place. He has reiterated this position despite MPs passing legislation that forces him to demand a third Brexit delay if a deal is not struck before October 19.

But Johnson has demanded the EU scrap the backstop arrangement — a policy designed to prevent a hard border in Ireland that could threaten peace on the island — which the bloc has rejected, putting the onus on the UK to find an alternative solution.

UK proposals released last week would see the introduction of a temporary all-island regulatory zone under which Northern Ireland would come out of the customs union but follow EU rules for goods. Customs checks would therefore still have to be conducted but the UK proposed that they take place electronically or at other points on the supply chain to avoid physical border infrastructure.

Read more: Boris Johnson sets out plan reworking backstop

Arlene Foster, leader of Northern Ireland's Democratic Union Party (DUP), said in a statement that "for the United Kingdom to be asked to leave a part of its sovereign territory in a foreign organisation of which the UK would no longer be a part and over which we would have no say whatsoever is beyond crazy."

"No UK Government could ever concede such a surrender," she added, warning: "we will not accept any such ultimatum or outcome."

However, Keir Starmer, the Brexit spokesperson for the main opposition Labour Party, said that "this is yet another cynical attempt by Number 10 to sabotage the negotiations", arguing that Johnson's "strategy from day one has been for a no-deal Brexit".

"It is now more important than ever that Parliament unites to prevent this reckless Government crashing us out of the EU at the end of the month," he added.

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, from the anti-Brexit Scottish National Party (SNP), accused the UK government of attempting "to shift the blame for the Brexit fiasco to anyone but themselves".

Outgoing EU Council President Donald Tusk echoed Sturgeon, warning Johnson on Twitter that "what's at stake is not winning some stupid blame game".

"At stake is the future of Europe and the UK as well as the security and interests of our people. You don’t want a deal, you don’t want an extension, you don’t want to revoke, quo vadis?" he asked.

Simon Coveney, the Irish Foreign Minister backed Tusk's statement and said the bloc "remain open to finalise a fair Brexit deal but need a UK government willing to work with EU to get it done".

The Commission has also rejected the accusation with spokesperson Mina Andreeva telling reporters that "under no circumstances will we accept that the EU wants to do harm to the Good Friday Agreement. The purpose of our work is to protect it in all its dimensions."

"The EU position has not changed: we want a deal. We are working for a deal," she added.

Meanwhile, the UK also released a 159-page "No Deal Readiness Report" on Tuesday.

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