Boris Brexit boost as deal ‘possible in days’ with green light for a weekend of negotiations ‘as Johnson agrees to a customs border in the Irish Sea’
- Brexit Secretary Steve Barclay and Michel Barnier have met in Brussels for talks
- EU ambassadors have agreed Mr Barnier can step up negotiations on legal text
- Boris Johnson insisted there is now a ‘way forward’ but refused to detail the plan
- Comes after summit at Merseyside hotel sparked renewed hope of Brexit deal
- Speculation the new blueprint could give Northern Ireland ‘best of both worlds’
- Donald Tusk revealed he almost ‘pulled the plug’ on negotiations but gave Johnson a reprieve after promising signals from Varadkar
Boris Johnson received a major Brexit boost last night as Brussels chiefs declared that a deal was possible within days.
The European Union gave the green light for a weekend of intense negotiations aimed at hammering out an agreement ahead of a crunch summit on Thursday.
The Prime Minister welcomed the step forward, but warned that ‘there’s a way to go’ and that it is not yet a ‘done deal’.
‘It’s important now that our negotiators on both sides get into proper talks about how to sort this thing out,’ he added.
Diplomats in Brussels said Mr Johnson had secured the breakthrough by agreeing to a customs border in the Irish Sea.
Speaking on a visit to a school yesterday afternoon, Mr Johnson said the new blueprint – which has been kept determinedly under wraps – would mean the ‘whole of the UK takes full advantage of Brexit’.
But he dodged when pressed on whether Northern Ireland will definitely leave the EU’s customs union, saying people should simply ‘look at what I have said before and draw their own conclusions’.
Democratic Unionist Party leader Arlene Foster, whose support will be key to getting a deal through Parliament, fired a warning shot at the Prime Minister last night when she insisted she would block anything that ‘traps Northern Ireland in the European Union, whether single market or customs union, as the rest of the UK leaves’.
Boris Johnson was visiting a school in Beaconsfield today (pictured) as the drama unfolded
Mr Johnson relaxed by doing some painting with schoolchildren on the visit to Beaconsfield this afternoon
But crucially she also said she was willing to be ‘flexible’ and indicated she could support proposals that see Northern Ireland treated differently to the rest of the UK if they have the backing of people in the province.
Hardline Eurosceptic Tory MPs provided further optimism that there might finally be the numbers to get an agreement through the Commons when they said they were not ruling out supporting the suggested changes.
British officials will spend today and tomorrow locked in talks with their EU counterparts at the European Commission’s Berlaymont headquarters in Brussels.
Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay and European Commission chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier held talks over breakfast in Brussels yesterday after Mr Johnson and Irish PM Leo Varadkar met at a Merseyside wedding venue where they agreed that they could ‘see a pathway’ to a possible agreement.
Both camps hailed yesterday morning’s two-hour meeting as ‘constructive’ and, as he left, Mr Barnier said: ‘Be patient. Brexit is like climbing a mountain. We need vigilance, determination and patience.’
Mr Barnier went on to meet the ambassadors of the 27 other EU countries, who agreed to ‘intensify discussions over the coming days’, the European Commission said.
Brexit Secretary Steve Barclay and Michel Barnier were all smiles today as they met for crucial talks as the sides make one last push for a deal
Mr Barclay (left) and Mr Barnier held discussions for around two hours amid renewed optimism that a deal is possible
EU council president Donald Tusk (pictured in Cyprus today) hailed ‘positive signs’ in the discussions, but warned ‘time has practically run out’
EU ambassadors gave Michel Barnier the green light for negotiations to go into the so-called ‘tunnel’ phase, which means the principles are in place, and work is moving to the intensive phase – when both sides bunker down to try to thrash out details.
Meanwhile, European Council president Donald Tusk revealed that he had been about to pull the plug on negotiations yesterday, but had decided to hand the PM a last-minute reprieve after receiving ‘promising signals from the Taoiseach that a deal is still possible’.
‘A week ago I told PM Johnson that if there was no such proposal by today, I would announce publicly that there are no more chances – because of objective reasons – for a deal during the incoming European Council,’ he said on a visit to Cyprus.
What happens next in the Brexit crisis?
Here is how the coming weeks could pan out:
Today: Michel Barnier and Steve Barclay met in Brussels.
They have agreed that negotiations can go into ‘the tunnel’.
That is the intensive, secret phase of talks where the teams have settled the main issues in principle and are trying to thrash out a joint legal text based.
Sunday: Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron are due to meet in France. The dinner will be a key waypointer to whether a deal will be possible next week.
Monday: Parliament is due to return for the Queen’s Speech.
In Brussels, the EU will ‘take stock’ with Mr Barnier over whether the legal text meets their criteria and can be put before leaders for approval.
October 17-18: A crunch EU summit in Brussels. Any deal could be signed off by leaders here. If the talks have broken down, expect Boris Johnson to either boycott the event, or stage a dramatic walkout.
October 19: Parliament will sit on Saturday for the first time since the Falklands War.
If there is no Brexit deal by this date Remainer legislation obliges the PM to beg the EU for an extension to avoid No Deal. Mr Johnson is likely to force a vote to make MPs ‘own’ any delay, having said he would rather ‘die in a ditch’ than accept one.
If there is a deal in place, there will be a make-or-break vote on whether to back it. If passed by the Commons, the government will start rushing legislation through Parliament immediately.
Monday: Jeremy Corbyn has said that he will let Mr Johnson trigger an election after an extension has been secured.
This would probably be the first day when a motion can be brought to a vote under the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, or a confidence vote can be held.
October 31: The current deadline for the UK to leave the EU, which Mr Johnson has previously described as ‘do or die’.
Thursday, November 28: An election looks inevitable whichever way the Brexit drama goes.
Legally there must be 25 working days between Parliament being dissolved and the election date.
This looks to be the most likely date for a poll, given they are traditionally held on Thursdays.
‘However, yesterday when the Irish Taoiseach and the UK Prime Minister met they both saw – for the first time – a pathway to a deal.
But he warned that the UK still has not presented a ‘workable, realistic proposal’.
After his meeting with Mr Barnier, Mr Barclay returned to London. But Mr Johnson’s chief negotiator, David Frost, stayed in Brussels to lead talks over the weekend.
On Monday Mr Barnier and EU ambassadors will assess whether enough progress has been made to draw up a final legal text to be signed off by leaders at a crunch summit later in the week. Details of the concessions offered by Mr Johnson remained scant last night – a sign they are being taken seriously by Brussels.
But sources said it involves a major new offer on the issue of customs, which has dogged talks.
It is understood that Mr Johnson has outlined proposals which accept the need for a customs border in the Irish Sea, something which was not part of formal plans tabled by the UK last week.
It could mean goods travelling from mainland Britain to Northern Ireland being subject to EU tariffs as they cross the Irish sea.Reports suggested that Northern Ireland businesses could later claim a rebate once it was proved the goods were for consumption in the UK market. The details of how such a customs arrangement would work will be at the centre of negotiations over the weekend.
One EU source said last night: ‘Barnier didn’t provide any details [during the briefing to EU ambassadors], just a bigger picture impression that the UK was ready to have no border on the island of Ireland.’
A senior EU diplomat said: ‘The British are being reasonable which allows the negotiations to be carried on throughout the weekend. Now there is a chance at a deal. One thing is for sure is that we’re not going to negotiate at the EU Council, it needs to be done before then.’
Mr Johnson declined to say what concessions he had made. When asked if Northern Ireland would still come out of the EU customs union, he replied: ‘Well, I can certainly tell you that under no circumstances will we see anything that damages the ability of the whole of the United Kingdom, to take full advantage of Brexit.’
France’s European affairs minister, Amelie de Montchalin sounded a note of caution, saying she still believes No Deal ‘is probable, at this stage’.
In an interview with France Inter radio this morning, Ms de Montchalin also suggested there was little reason to grant an extension beyond October 31.
‘I have a fundamental question: why give more time? If it is time for the sake of time? It has taken one year, even three years, and we don’t really get it,’ she said.
A commission spokeswoman said this afternoon: ‘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.
Mr Varadkar (pictured right with Mr Johnson yesterday) said there was now potential for the negotiations to enter the ‘tunnel’ – an intensive phase where details are hammered out
After three hours of talks at a country manor on the Wirral, the Prime Minister and his Irish counterpart said they could see a ‘pathway to a possible deal’
‘The Commission will take stock with the European Parliament and Member States again on Monday in view of preparing the General Affairs Council (Article 50) on Tuesday morning.’
Although he was positive after the talks yesterday, Mr Varadkar did warn that negotiations on a deal could yet collapse, saying: ‘There’s many a slip between cup and lip and lots of things that are not in my control.’
The summit, at Thornton Manor in Cheshire, was attended by only the PM’s most senior officials, including chief adviser Dominic Cummings and Cabinet Secretary Sir Mark Sedwill.
Could the new plan give Ulster the ‘best of both worlds’?
The shape of the new blueprint is far from clear, with both sides insisting they have not given up on red lines.
But there is speculation the plan might try to give Northern Ireland the ‘best of both worlds’ – staying within the UK and EU customs unions.
This model would be based on an idea previously floated when Theresa May was PM.
It could see EU tariffs apply on goods going from mainland Britain to the island of Ireland – but rebates given to businesses in the north as if they were in the UK customs jurisdiction.
That could potentially do away with the need for border infrastructure on the island, while maintaining the principle that the UK stay intact.
However, there are doubts it will end up being acceptable to the DUP as there would be an administrative border in the Irish Sea.
At one point, the two leaders even took a walk in the grounds as they strove to find a way through the impasse.
When they emerged, they issued a statement, hailing a ‘detailed and constructive’ discussion, and saying: ‘Both continue to believe that a deal is in everybody’s interest. They agreed that they could see a pathway to a possible deal.’
Michael Gove described the talks as ‘very encouraging’, adding: ‘I hope the optimistic and constructive approach that both sides showed can result in more progress.’
Mr Varadkar and UK officials voiced hopes that Mr Barnier would agree to take the negotiations into the ‘tunnel’, but there were fears the Frenchman would refuse to countenance anything that might dilute the single market.
In another warning sign, Eurosceptic MPs have warned that Mr Johnson would face defeat at Westminster if he offered any further significant concessions.
No10 selected 19th-century Thornton Manor – now a luxury wedding venue – as a ‘neutral’ venue for the negotiations and tried to cloak the talks in secrecy.
Mr Varadkar has been the most hardline supporter of the so-called Irish backstop, which Mr Johnson has pledged to scrap.
But with the UK and the EU potentially just three weeks from a damaging No Deal, the two men appeared to set aside their previous positions in an attempt to find a compromise.
To the surprise of aides, the two leaders banished officials for almost two hours as they talked through potential ideas – and held frank talks on what would be acceptable to their parliaments and voters.
Speaking after the meeting, Mr Varadkar struck a remarkably upbeat tone, describing the talks as ‘very promising’.
‘I think it is possible for us to come to an agreement, to have a treaty agreed, to allow the UK to leave the EU in an orderly fashion and to have that done by the end of October,’ he added.
Mr Varadkar added: ‘In terms of concessions, I don’t think this should be seen in the context of who’s making concessions or who the winners or losers are.’
The Taoiseach insisted the new plan would meet Ireland’s key objective that there would be ‘no customs border’ between Northern Ireland and the Republic.
What is the Irish backstop and why is it so divisive?
The so-called Irish border backstop is one of the most controversial parts of the existing Brexit deal. This is what it means:
What is the backstop?
The backstop was invented to meet promises to keep open the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland even if there is no comprehensive UK-EU trade deal.
The divorce deal says it will kick in automatically at the end of the Brexit transition period if that agreement is not in place.
It effectively keeps the UK in a customs union with the EU, and Northern Ireland in both the customs union and single market.
This means many EU laws will keep being imposed on the UK, restricting its ability to do its own trade deals. It also means regulatory checks on some goods crossing the Irish Sea.
Why have Ireland and the EU demanded it?
Because the UK is leaving the customs union and single market, the EU said it needed guarantees that people and goods circulating inside its border – in this case in Ireland – met its rules.
This is covered by the Brexit transition, which effectively maintains the status quo, and can in theory be done in the comprehensive EU-UK trade deal.
But the EU said there had to be a backstop to cover what happens in any gap between the transition and final deal.
Why do critics hate it?
Because Britain cannot decide when to leave the backstop.
Getting out – even if there is a trade deal – can only happen if both sides agree and Brexiteers fear the EU will unreasonably demand the backstop continues so EU law continues to apply in Northern Ireland.
Northern Ireland MPs also hate the regulatory border in the Irish Sea, insisting it unreasonably carves up the United Kingdom.
What are the UK’s new proposals?
The latest blueprint being floated would not be the same as a previous Northern Ireland-only backstop floated by Brussels, which was dismissed by Theresa May as something no British PM could accept.
That would have involved the province staying within the EU’s tax jurisdiction.
Instead, the idea is thought to be a much looser alignment of agricultural and food regulations with Ireland.
That could help avoid many checks on the border, but it is far from clear it would be acceptable either to the EU or the DUP.
Border problem in Ireland? Boris has a plan for that: How journey of a fridge explains how Brexit deal may work
What was the original plan?
Boris Johnson’s original plan would have seen Northern Ireland leave the EU customs union, while remaining part of the single market.
Dublin argued this would require a customs border, which would break the Good Friday Agreement.
In addition, EU said it would not accept Mr Johnson’s call to waive or simplify customs rules to keep cross-border trade in Ireland as frictionless as possible. The British plan had been to have customs checks ‘away from either side of the border’ but this was dismissed by critics as ‘vague’.
The original plan would have given the Northern Ireland Assembly a vote every four years on the new arrangements.
Dublin said this was effectively handing a near permanent veto to the Democratic Unionists at Stormont.
What has changed?
Mr Johnson met Irish premier Leo Varadkar in Merseyside on Thursday with little hope of progress. But after three hours of talks they both agreed on a ‘pathway to a possible deal’.
What they agreed is not yet fully known. Brexit Secretary Steve Barclay put an outline to the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier yesterday in a meeting described as ‘constructive’.
How the journey of a fridge explains how the deal may just work
Will it solve customs issue?
Sources claimed yesterday that Mr Johnson has agreed to effectively scrap any customs border between NI and the Republic – and replace it with a scheme under which the province will be in both the EU and the UK customs zones simultaneously.
Customs checks would take place at a new administrative border on the Irish Sea, with firms paying EU tariffs on goods travelling from the British mainland to Northern Ireland.
It would mean the UK would collect tariffs on goods on behalf of the EU. Goods to Ireland will then be free to travel there without any stop at the border. If the goods are destined for NI, firms could claim a rebate to take into account a potentially lower UK tariff.
The single market?
NI would stay ‘aligned’ to the EU’s rules and regulations. Checks would take place when goods are travelling from Britain to Northern Ireland, obviating the need for checks between Ulster and the Republic.
Mr Johnson’s plan has its roots in the ‘customs partnership’ once championed by Theresa May. This also would have seen NI effectively remain in the customs union but still able to take advantage of UK trade deals.
Last year, Mr Johnson described the idea as a ‘crazy system whereby you end up collecting tariffs on behalf of the EU at the UK frontier’ – exactly what he is now proposing. The EU also rejected the idea.
Mr Johnson’s plan relates only to Northern Ireland, while Mrs May’s took in the whole UK. This reduces the level of bureaucracy as the trade between the mainland and Ulster is clearly lower than the huge volumes flowing into ports such as Felixstowe and Dover.
Brexit Secretary Steve Barclay put an outline to the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier yesterday in a meeting described as ‘constructive’ (pictured together on Friday)
Mr Johnson is understood to have dropped the four-yearly Stormont votes plan. Some form of democratic ‘consent’ is likely if only to honour the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement.
The other 27 EU members yesterday agreed to open intensive ‘tunnel’ negotiations on the latest proposals.Accelerated negotiations will take place over the weekend and could be wrapped up by Wednesday. If a deal is thrashed out in Brussels then it could be put to a vote in Westminster next Saturday, October 19.
Will MPs buy it?
He’s largely given up on the bulk of Labour MPs who are determined to stop a ‘Tory Brexit’ at all costs. The Lib Dems and the SNP will also vote against. No 10 will spend the week convincing Tory Remainers who were thrown out to now climb back on board. However, the chances of a deal being rubberstamped remain slim.
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