Hopes of a Brexit deal were dramatically revived on Thursday (10 October) following three hours of talks between Boris Johnson and Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar.
In a joint statement following the meeting in the Wirral outside Liverpool, Dublin and London stated that “both continue to believe that a deal is in everybody’s interest. They agreed that they could see a pathway to a possible deal.”
Although no detail was offered on what was discussed, and if either side had offered concessions, Varadkar told reporters that the meeting had been “very promising and positive”, adding that “it is possible 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.”
The joint statement added that Varadkar would consult with the EU’s Brexit Taskforce while the UK’s Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay will meet Michel Barnier on Friday morning.
That marks a surprising twist. Just two days before Johnson’s advisors briefed that brokering a compromise was “essentially impossible” following a difficult meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Meanwhile, Varadkar had remarked that a deal would be “very difficult” without new concessions from the UK.
On Wednesday, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier told MEPs that “finding an agreement is difficult, but still possible”.
But the window for agreeing a deal by the end of next week’s European Council summit and it being passed by the UK Parliament is extremely narrow. The UK is due to leave the EU on October 31, although a law passed by UK lawmakers last month will require Johnson to request a three month extension rather than crash out of the bloc without a deal.
The 1998 Good Friday Agreement effectively created an invisible border between north and south, and finding a way to maintain the border open without keeping at least a part of the United Kingdom tied to EU trade rules has long been the main sticking point in the Brexit talks.
In an attempt to replace the backstop in the Withdrawal Agreement brokered by Johnson’s predecessor Theresa May, last week Johnson proposed to establish a new regulatory border between Britain and Northern Ireland for four years.
This would involve some new customs checks on the island of Ireland, and for Northern Ireland to leave the EU’s customs union and come out of the single market in all goods, apart from agri-food products and industrial products.
In 2025, the Northern Ireland government and elected assembly would then choose whether to stay in the single market, which Johnson described as “a process of renewable democratic consent by the executive and assembly of Northern Ireland”.
Those were quickly rejected by the EU which continues to have concerns over the customs solutions envisaged, the role of the Northern Irish authorities, and a lack of legally operable solutions to ensure it works.
However, although further concessions from the UK are likely to be needed, Johnson’s room for manoeuvre is still highly constrained, needing the support of Eurosceptic Conservatives and the Democratic Unionist Party in order to get a Brexit deal passed by the UK Parliament.