British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his Irish counterpart Leo Varadkar said Thursday they could see a “pathway” to reaching a Brexit deal after meeting for last-ditch talks, but remained cautious with just days left to strike an agreement.
Time is running out to sign off on any deal at an October 17-18 European Union summit, the last such meeting before Britain’s scheduled departure from the European Union at the end of the month.
The main sticking point in the divorce deal is how to keep open the border between the British province of Northern Ireland and the Irish republic, a member of the EU.
After talks near Liverpool in northwest England, Johnson and Varadkar “agreed that they could see a pathway to a possible deal”, according to a joint statement.
Speaking to reporters at the airport, Varadkar later said the meeting was “very positive”, suggesting it would be a “short pathway, rather than a long one”.
“I think it’s 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 by the end of October,” he said.
But he cautioned there could still be obstacles along the way in what has become a more than three-year game of high-stakes political snakes and ladders.
“There’s many a slip between cup and lip,” he warned.
Johnson has vowed Britain will end its five-decade membership of the EU on October 31, with or without agreeing exit terms.
But he could be forced to seek to delay Brexit for a third time if he fails to agree a deal by next week’s summit, thanks to a law passed by rebellious MPs last month.
The pound, which has been weighed down by fears of a disorderly divorce, jumped on the joint statement, rising 0.5 percent against the US dollar and 0.4 percent against the euro.
But all eyes turned to a breakfast meeting in Brussels on Friday morning between British Brexit Secretary Steve Barclay and the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier.
Irish border block
Since the 2016 British referendum vote for Brexit, negotiations have bounced back and forth between London and Brussels. But Ireland has been a key player because of the border issue.
Johnson and Varadkar met at Thornton Manor, a venue more commonly used for luxury weddings than discussing international divorce terms.
Their talks “concentrated on the challenges of customs and consent”, their joint statement said.
After British MPs rejected the previous “backstop” plan to keep the border open, Johnson presented a new proposal last week — but it received a cold reception in Brussels.
He proposes Northern Ireland stay aligned to the EU’s single market but remain in a separate UK-wide customs territory, envisaging customs but no regulatory checks on the frontier.
Northern Ireland’s opt-in to the plan would be open to four-yearly review by the province’s devolved assembly and executive.
But Brussels is adamant it will not agree to any plan that undermines the single market — which allows free movement of goods across Europe — or risks exacerbating tensions on the island of Ireland.
A free-flowing border is considered vital to maintaining peace in Northern Ireland, which was plagued by three decades of violence over British rule, which was largely brought to an end with the 1998 Good Friday peace accords.
Thursday’s talks came after recriminations flew over who was to blame for the impasse, which runs the risk of huge economic disruption on both sides of the Channel if Britain crashes out.
Britain’s economy shrank in August, official data showed Thursday, but analysts say a better-than-expected July is expected to help it avoid recession.
French President Emmanuel Macron voiced frustration with the issue that has dominated in the bloc since 2016.
“Brexit is a British domestic crisis, not a European one,” he said, adding that it was important now to finalise talks and see if there was “something that I hope could fly”.
But he added: “At the very end this is a British responsibility” on whether it leaves the EU with or without a deal or even cancels the Brexit process outright.
Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s Brexit coordinator, meanwhile said Britain’s proposals were “not serious” and were aimed at starting a “blame game”.
“The real traitor is he or she who risks bringing disaster upon his country and it’s citizens, pushing the UK out of the EU,” the former Belgian premier tweeted.