- The UK and EU are set to enter a new phase of detailed Brexit negotiations as hopes of a prospect deal increase.
- Ambassadors from member states gave Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, the green light to enter into detailed discussions on Friday.
- The development came after UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his Irish counterpart, Leo Varadkar, agreed Thursday that they could see the “pathway to a deal” on Brexit after a lengthy meeting.
- The meeting marked a dramatic, positive shift in tone after talks appeared close to collapse.
LONDON – Boris Johnson’s government is set to enter intensive “tunnel” negotiations with the EU over a possible Brexit deal ahead of a crunch summit in Brussels next weekend, in a major boost for the prospect of an agreement before the October 31 deadline.
The tunnel is EU jargon for line-by-line negotiations held by a small team of officials from the UK and EU which are conducted in complete secrecy, meaning that offers and concessions are not disclosed.
Ambassadors from the 27 remaining EU member states gave the green light for Michel Barnier to open the new phase of accelerated talks on Friday.
A statement from the EU Commission said: “The EU and the UK have agreed to intensify discussions over the coming days.
“The EU’s position remains the same: there must be a legally operative solution in the Withdrawal Agreement that avoids a hard border on the island of Ireland, protects the all-island economy and the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement in all its dimensions, and safeguards the integrity of the Single Market.”
Donald Tusk, the EU council president, said on Friday he had told the prime minister to present his Brexit proposals to the EU by next Thursday but added that “positive signals” were now emerging from London.
The development came after Johnson met with Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar on Thursday, who offered a strikingly upbeat assessment of the chances that the UK can strike a deal by next Thursday’s EU summit.
While the details of Johnson’s latest proposals have not emerged from the meeting, Varadkar said: “I had a very good meeting today with the prime minister and our teams together – very positive and very promising.”
“I am now absolutely convinced that both Ireland and Britain want there to be an agreement that’s in the interests of Ireland, the UK, and EU as a whole,” he added.
“And I do see a pathway towards an agreement in the coming weeks.”
Johnson did not make a public comment after the meeting in an apparent attempt to rebuild trust between the leaders, which has soured in recent weeks, and avoid derailing any breakthroughs, but Downing Street echoed Varadkar’s claim that the leaders had identified the “pathway to a deal.”
The pound rose 2% against the dollar to $US1.246 on the news as the focus shifted to Brussels, where Brexit Secretary Steve Barclay arrived for discussions with Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator.
While some progress does appear to have been made at the meeting, the EU remains far apart from the UK’s position, with customs proposals by far the biggest sticking point.
Johnson called last week for the Irish backstop to be replaced with a plan that would see Northern Ireland remain in the European single market for goods but leave the customs union along with the rest of the UK.
But Brussels has said it will not accept the proposal on the grounds that it would require customs checks on the island of Ireland, which it says would threaten the Irish peace settlement.
Varadkar’s words Thursday indicated that Johnson might have shifted his red lines and could now be willing to keep Northern Ireland in the customs union.
But any concession that would keep Northern Ireland in the customs union would cause a political storm within the Conservative Party, and it is unclear whether there would be a majority in Parliament for such a deal.