London| The UK and European Unionsignaled a Brexit deal is in sight, with negotiators heading into three days of intensive talks in Brussels.
On Friday, EU officials said that British Prime Minister Boris Johnson had indicated he was prepared to make sufficient concessions to allow detailed talks to begin. Teams from both sides will work over the weekend to explore whether they can arrive at the basis of an accord ahead of a summit of EU leaders that begins Thursday.
The pound posted its biggest two-day gain in a decade, while UK bank stocks soared — but both sides cautioned that much work remains to be done if Britain is to leave the EU by Mr Johnson’s October 31 deadline.
At issue are Mr Johnson’s plans totake Northern Ireland out of Europe’s customs unionand give Stormont, its power-sharing assembly, a veto over the arrangement. The first would trigger the return of checks on goods crossing the border, something Dublin and the EU are opposed to, while the second would hand the Democratic Unionist Party an effective veto over the deal, something unacceptable south of the border.
But in a meeting with envoys of the bloc’s remaining 27 countries on Friday, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, suggested that Mr Johnson is softening his stance on both customs and consent. In what would potentially be a significant climb-down, Mr Johnson acknowledged there should be no customs border on the island of Ireland, two officials said. When asked in a pooled interview for British television, Mr Johnson declined to say whether Northern Ireland will leave the EU’s customs union.
“There is a joint feeling that there is a way forward, that we can see a pathway to a deal” he said. “That doesn’t mean it’s a done deal. There’s work to be done.”
EU officials think the only solution will be an arrangement that keeps Northern Ireland in the customs union – the so-called Northern Ireland-only backstop.
Negotiators’ focus will now be on whether the deal is explicit in that or whether the two sides can come up with a compromise that could see Northern Ireland remain in the customs territories of both the UK and the EU, the officials said.
While there’s no discussion yet of putting a time limit on the arrangements — something the EU has previously rejected — one EU official said that it could yet be considered.
Any agreement would have to be backed by Parliament in London, where Johnson is reliant on the DUP. The group is staunchly opposed to the region being subject to different customs rules to the rest of the UK.
In a statement, DUP Leader Arlene Foster fired a warning shot against any attempt to keep Northern Ireland in the EU customs union, although, crucially, she didn’t go as far as explicitly withholding support from the prime minister.
“Those who know anything about Northern Ireland will appreciate that these issues will only work with the support of the unionist as well as the nationalist community,” she said.
While negotiations are heading into a new intensive phase, they aren’t headed into the full “tunnel,” the formal Brussels process by which the actual legal text of an agreement is thrashed out in secret.
This suggests that the EU still has reservations about the chances of getting a deal done, and that member states are unwilling to outsource the process entirely to Barnier and his team.
The Frenchman will update the EU’s national envoys Sunday, with the aim of having something concrete for EU affairs ministers to look at when they meet in Luxembourg on Tuesday to prepare for the summit.
For all the fresh optimism, there is still a long way to go.
European Council President Donald Tusk said the UK hadn’t yet “come forward with a workable, realistic proposal.” But he added that he had seen “promising signals.” The next week will see whether those noises turn into an agreement on paper.
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