Optimism Builds in Brussels for a Deal on Brexit, as Talks Go Down to the Wire
BRUSSELS — Missing a succession of deadlines, Brexit talks on Wednesday went down to the wire on the eve of a critical summit of European Union leaders amid signs that the deadlock over Britain’s planed departure from the bloc could be on the verge of breaking.
Tense discussions continued in Brussels, where British and European officials were closeted in the headquarters of the European Commission, while in London, Prime Minister Boris Johnson sought to cajole influential lawmakers into accepting difficult compromises.
Throughout the day sentiment seesawed between caution and optimism as officials raced to reach agreement on a draft text that could be put to European heads of government on Thursday when they arrive in Brussels.
Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, told a Polish broadcaster, TVN24 on Wednesday afternoon that the “basic foundations of an agreement are ready.” Later, President Emmanuel Macron of France, who has taken a hard line in the negotiations, said at a news conference, “I want to believe an agreement is being finalized and that we will be able to endorse it tomorrow.”
But conflicting signals from diplomats reflected the complexity and sensitivity of the negotiation underway, and the fact that neither party wants to be blamed should the talks collapse. Adding to the sense of uncertainty, European Union diplomats know that Mr. Johnson has no majority in the British Parliament, so that he might struggle to deliver on any deal he strikes.
To have a good prospect of ratifying a new agreement in Parliament, Mr. Johnson needs the support, in particular, of 10 lawmakers from Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, who prop up the government but who helped torpedo a previous Brexit agreement negotiated by Mr. Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May.
Talks with the D.U.P. took place in Downing Street on Wednesday, after which the party’s leader, Arlene Foster, declared that there was more work to do. “‘E.U. sources’ are talking nonsense,” she said in a Twitter post. “Discussions continue. Needs to be a sensible deal which unionists and nationalists can support.”
In a meeting with Conservative lawmakers, Mr. Johnson compared the negotiations to climbing Mount Everest, saying he was on the perilous last approach but that the peak was still “shrouded in mist.”
If there is a deal, and if European Union leaders approve it, Mr. Johnson wants to rush it through Britain’s Parliament on Saturday.
That is the deadline imposed by a British law that would require him to seek another Brexit delay if, by then, he has neither the approval of British lawmakers for a deal, or for leaving without one — something a majority in Britain’s Parliament has consistently opposed.
Having promised that he would rather be “dead in a ditch” than postpone Britain’s Oct. 31 exit date, the heat is on Mr. Johnson to strike an agreement.
Under the pressure of that Saturday deadline, it seemed to be Britain that was making most of the compromises over the sensitive issue of how to handle the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom, and Ireland, which will remain in the European Union.
“Part of this is a calculation that Boris Johnson doesn’t want an extension, so they are pressuring him to make concessions,” said Mujtaba Rahman, managing director for Europe at the Eurasia Group, a consulting firm. Yet there is, he added, a risk that Mr. Johnson will be pushed too far.
“If the talks break down, no one wants to be left holding the can,” Mr. Rahman added, “this is all about stage management.”
The latest plan is thought to be a complex system that would keep Northern Ireland legally in the United Kingdom’s customs union, while applying the European Union’s trade rules. That would avoid the need for customs checks in Ireland — something that the Irish government opposes — but would involve a complicated system of rebates for Northern Irish traders, and could open new opportunities for smugglers.
Putting technicalities into a legal text is one challenge, but another is the question of how Northern Ireland would give its approval to be part of such a system. On Wednesday in Parliament, the D.U.P.’s Brexit spokesman, Sammy Wilson, expressed serious issues over the question of how that “consent” would be sought.
Mr. Rahman said that Mrs. May had, after objections from the D.U.P., rejected a plan for the Irish border similar to the one that Mr. Johnson has moved toward, saying it would isolate Northern Ireland and threaten the integrity of the United Kingdom. “May said no British prime minister could ever make that deal,” Mr. Rahman said.
But Mr. Johnson has more credibility with hard-line Brexit supporters than Mrs. May had, and he is promising them that his ultimate objective is a much looser relationship with the European Union.
Unlike Mrs. May, Mr. Johnson is said to have rejected the idea of keeping a “level playing field” on regulation with the European Union.
That stance has alarmed some European governments, who fear that Britain will try to undercut countries like France by cutting taxes and regulatory obligations on companies. But on Wednesday afternoon, European Union officials were reporting agreement on both issues, consent and the playing field.
Despite the complications, there was optimism from the Prime Minister Leo Varadkar of Ireland, who, after a brief phone call with Mr. Johnson, said he remained hopeful of a deal but added that there was work still to do.
“I am convinced that all parties are serious about getting an agreement by the end of this month,” he said in Dublin. But he added that “Oct. 31 is still a few weeks away and there is the possibility of an additional summit before that if we need one.”
That would not be a palatable prospect for Mr. Johnson, who badly needs something to take to Parliament on Saturday.
Benjamin Mueller contributed reporting from London.
Stephen Castle is London correspondent, writing widely about Britain, including the country’s politics and relationship with Europe. @_StephenCastle • Facebook
Mark Landler is the London bureau chief of The New York Times. In 27 years at The Times, he has been bureau chief in Hong Kong and Frankfurt, White House correspondent, diplomatic correspondent, European economic correspondent, and a business reporter in New York. @MarkLandler
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