November 8, 2018 / 10:41 AM / 5 days ago

Hunt seeks to reassure France as Brexit deal inches nearer

PARIS (Reuters) - UK foreign minister Jeremy Hunt said a final Brexit deal was unlikely in the next seven days but would happen soon, as he sought to reassure France that bilateral relations would remain strong after Britain leaves the EU.

FILE PHOTO: Britain's Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt addresses the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham, Britain September 30, 2018. REUTERS/Toby Melville

Delivering a speech in French at the British embassy in Paris, Hunt cited William the Conqueror, the experience of two world wars and modern-day security cooperation to underscore the depth of ties between the two countries.

“How that partnership evolves depends on decisions we make now,” he said on Thursday, highlighting his Francophile credentials by saying that he learned French while working as a luggage porter at a hotel on the Champs Elysees in Paris.

British and European Union negotiators are in the closing stages of reaching a Brexit deal though there remains a major obstacle for London: agreeing a plan to ensure there is no hard border between British-ruled Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland.

Asked if a deal could be clinched in the next seven days, Hunt said it was “probably pushing it”, and he would not be drawn on one by the end of November either. But he said everything remained on track for an agreement soon.

“I am confident that we will reach an agreement because it is in all sides’ interest to reach an agreement,” he said. “We are in the final stage.”

SHARED FUTURE

Over the past 18 months of negotiations, some UK officials have raised objections to what they perceive as French inflexibility over Brexit, suggesting Paris has sought to make Britain suffer for leaving.

Hunt did not touch directly on those charges, but he acknowledged some in France seemed to think Britain was trying to have its “cake and eat it” and sought to reassure his audience the country would play by the rules.

“We have offered you a framework for our future relationship which should give you confidence,” he said.

That proposal “would allow our economic and security relationships to continue, not as they were before, but on a dependable basis on which we could continue to build.”

One of the most sensitive issues for Britain is maintaining close security and intelligence ties with France.

As well as their militaries conducting operations together, the two have traditionally worked closely on combating terrorism threats, and a large portion of Franco-British trade passes through shared infrastructure like the Channel tunnel.

Hunt argued that while Britain and France may have different visions of the European Union, they shared an understanding of Europe that would endure.

Even after a Brexit deal is reached, Britain’s parliament and those in the 27 other EU member states will still need to ratify it. Britain therefore needs the support of others to cross the finish line before its scheduled departure in March.

Asked if Prime Minister Theresa May would secure the backing of her own parliament for the deal, given that she holds a wafer-thin majority with the support of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, Hunt was positive.

“We are confident that we will be able to get a final deal through parliament for the simple reason that Theresa May is not going to sign up to a deal that is inconsistent with the letter and spirit of the referendum,” he said.

Britons voted to leave the bloc in June 2016.

Reporting by Luke Baker, Leigh Thomas and Richard Lough; editing by John Stonestreet

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