Has a solution to the Irish-border issue been found? Not yet, but both sides proclaimed progress had been made after a one-on-one meeting between Boris Johnson and Leo Varadkar late yesterday. According to Johnson’s office, the meeting produced “a pathway to a possible deal.”
It’s not the first time that the UK has made that kind of claim, but this time the EU seems more optimistic as well. Their chief negotiator has recommended “intensifying” negotiations on the basis of the UK-Ireland discussion:
EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier told ambassadors in Brussels Friday that there are grounds for going deeper into negotiations with the U.K.
Barnier met his opposite number U.K. Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay on Friday morning to take stock of the talks. Diplomats had been pessimistic about significant progress by the end of this week, seen as a necessary precursor to a deal at the European Council summit on Thursday next week.
After a fractious start to the week, the Brexit mood music became more positive following a meeting between Boris Johnson and Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar on Thursday. After that meeting Varadkar said he could see a “pathway to a deal,” language echoed in a statement issued by Downing Street.
EU Commission president Donald Tusk, who had started the week openly mocking Johnson, seems encouraged by what he’s heard … although perhaps not convinced:
The UK has still not come forward with a workable, realistic proposal. But I have received promising signals from Taoiseach @LeoVaradkar that a deal is possible. Even the slightest chance must be used. A no deal #Brexit will never be the choice of the EU.
— Charles Michel (@eucopresident) October 11, 2019
Some see Barnier’s call as the opening for “tunnel negotiations,” in which everyone else gets locked out until the negotiators emerge on the other side with a deal. That might be reading a little too much into the developments. No firm proposal for compromise has emerged from the Johnson-Varadkar talks, nor does it seem likely to happen at all. The developments are being played close to the vest, with Barnier and Barclay tasked with taking up the threads and weaving them into a proposal themselves.
Both leaders have good reason for keeping their brainstorming quiet, of course, but Johnson might have more reason than Varadkar. Reuters hears that Johnson offered Ireland a significant concession — perhaps all the way back to Theresa May’s position:
A diplomat and an EU official said Barnier had told member states that Britain had changed its position to now accept that the proposed replacement to the so-called “backstop” cannot erect a customs border between EU member Ireland and the British province of Northern Ireland.
“On customs, they admitted that the solution cannot result in the creation of a border in Ireland,” the diplomat said, adding that this was the reason Barnier gave national envoys in Brussels to justify going into intensified talks with Britain over the weekend.
Separately, two senior EU diplomats told Reuters the possible solution could include two elements: keeping Northern Ireland inside the United Kingdom’s customs regime and, at the same time, ensuring that customs and regulatory checks were carried out together.
Under an earlier British proposal, the regulatory border would run in the Irish Sea between Northern Ireland and mainland Britain. The sources said they understood that customs checks could be carried out there as well under the plan now under discussions.
That marked a change from the latest EU-UK discussions when London proposed dispersed customs checks across the whole island of Ireland, which the bloc rejected as unworkable and not offering enough protection to its single market.
The Tories could have gotten that deal months ago, but Johnson and his Brexiters torpedoed it. Johnson would have an uphill battle selling that concession to Parliament now:
The second ERG amendment made it unlawful for Northern Ireland to enter a separate customs territory from UK.
Boris Johnson will have to find a Commons majority to repeal/amend the trade bill if his new Brexit plan is going to fly. pic.twitter.com/ZbtGXkEszQ
— Sebastian Payne (@SebastianEPayne) October 11, 2019
Johnson himself was non-committal about the possibility, which is news in itself:
In a pooled television clip following a visit to a school on Friday, Boris Johnson declined to say whether Northern Ireland would definitely leave the EU’s customs union when asked.
“I think it would be wrong of me to give a running commentary on the negotiations,” he said. “With the greatest possible respect I think, look at everything I’ve said previously. I think you can draw your own conclusions from that. But let’s our negotiators get on.”
Johnson said: “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, and I think that’s what people would expect, and that’s what I think we can achieve.”
It goes without saying that the EU has consistently proposed putting the customs and regulatory checks between Great Britain and Northern Ireland since Brexit negotiations began. Theresa May at first appeared open to the idea until she made the fatal error of calling for a snap election in an attempt to increase the Conservative majority. Instead, she ended up needing the DUP to form her government, and the DUP refused to contemplate any Brexit plan that didn’t take Northern Ireland out of the EU’s customs and regulatory control.
If that concept is the basis for the new hope of a negotiated Brexit deal, and we don’t yet know for sure that it is, the concession would make a lot of sense … and have little to no chance of passing in Parliament. In other words, don’t get your hopes up.
Addendum: Whither the DUP? Leader Arlene Foster issued a vaguely positive statement about Johnson’s efforts, but reminded Tories that they will not tolerate being treated differently than the rest of the UK:
— David Blevins (@skydavidblevins) October 11, 2019
That’s why there remains considerable skepticism in the EU that this represents any real progress at all:
EU sources said it was too soon to tell whether Johnson was ready to return to the EU’s original offer of a Northern Ireland-only backstop, a proposal that would leave the region in an EU customs union following many European single market rules. …
The key sticking points are twofold: Downing Street’s insistence until now that there will be a customs border on the island of Ireland, and the mechanism for gaining democratic consent for Northern Ireland’s continued alignment with the EU’s single market in goods.
Dublin has insisted it will not accept the extra checks and controls that would result from there being two customs territories. The UK’s proposals for consent are viewed as giving the Democratic Unionist party a unilateral veto over Northern Ireland’s alignment with the EU’s rules.
May’s snap election continues to reverberate.