UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has received further encouragement in his attempts at securing a Brexit deal after European Union member states agreed to “intensify” negotiations over the next few days.
Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, debriefed ambassadors of all 27 member states on Friday following a “constructive meeting” with Steve Barclay, the UK Secretary of State for Exiting the EU.
The optimistic words followed bad-tempered exchanges earlier in the week. Those indicated relations between the two sides were becoming strained with the deadline for the UK’s departure from the European Union looming and no deal yet agreed.
A statement issued by the EU Commission said Friday: “The EU and the UK have agreed to intensify discussions over the coming days.”
In a tweet posted later, Barnier said technical discussions would be held in a “constructive spirit,” adding that the EU “will do everything it can for an agreement.”
Johnson warned that despite recent developments, an agreement was not a done deal. “There’s a way to go,” he told reporters on Friday.
“It’s important now that our negotiators on both sides get into proper talks about how to sort this thing out.”
A major obstacle still remains in that any new deal between London and Brussels must be passed by the UK Parliament. Johnson’s predecessor Theresa May tried three times to get her deal ratified — only to see it rejected by opposition lawmakers and hardline Brexiteers.
Nevertheless the news caused the pound to strengthen dramatically on Friday to approach $1.27, completing a two-day surge that saw the UK currency gain more than 3.5%.
Hopes of a breakthrough were raised when British and Irish leaders Boris Johnson and Leo Varadkar said they saw a “pathway” to an agreement after a face-to-face meeting on Thursday.
In a joint statement, both leaders described the two-hour meeting as a “detailed and constructive discussion” where “they agreed that they could see a pathway to a possible deal.”
Details of Johnson’s latest proposals have yet to emerge and it is unclear which side conceded ground at the meeting, but Varadkar told journalists on Thursday he thought it possible for a new deal to be struck by the end of this month.
France President Emmanuel Macron hinted on Friday that the immediate future could be crucial regarding the possibility of breaking the deadlock.
Asked by a Reuters reporter if there was a “glimmer of hope,” Macron replied: “Let us wait for the next few hours.”
EU leaders are due to meet for a summit on October 17 and 18. If significant progress is made in the coming days, it is possible they may agree to a short extension to the current October 31 deadline to get a deal done.
If the PM fails to get a deal by October 19, he is obliged by law to seek a new extension to the Brexit process. But Johnson has long maintained that he would take the UK out of the European Union on October 31 “do or die.”
Brexit’s most intractable issue
The question of the Irish border — and the proposed “backstop” that angers Brexiteers — has become the most intractable issue in negotiations.
A return of border posts on the frontier between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland has been a red line for the EU since Brexit negotiations began.
In its statement, the European Commission added: “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.”
Under the plan Johnson put forward earlier this month, Northern Ireland would leave the EU customs union on October 31 along with the rest of the UK. But the region would remain aligned with EU regulations on goods and agriculture.
Both sides say they don’t want to place infrastructure on the frontier between Northern Ireland and Ireland, with the absence of a hard border seen as integral to the peace that followed decades of conflict. But Dublin has been skeptical about UK plans to carry out customs checks at facilities set back from the border, and at business premises.
There was also alarm in Dublin over a consent mechanism — a plan to give the Northern Ireland assembly a veto every four years on whether the region should retain EU goods and agriculture regulations.