Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, has secured the agreement of the EU27 to open intensive “tunnel” negotiations on Boris Johnson’s latest proposals in a major boost for the British government.
Sources said ambassadors representing the EU member states had given the “green light” to accelerated negotiations, in the hope of agreeing terms by next Thursday’s summit.
The details of Johnson’s latest suggestion to the EU are yet to emerge. The development came shortly after Donald Tusk revealed that he had set the prime minister an ultimatum of presenting new Brexit proposals by Friday or “no more chances”, but said “positive signals” were now emerging.
The European council president cautiously welcomed developments in Wirral on Wednesday when the British prime minister and his Irish counterpart, Leo Varadkar, concluded talks by saying they could see a “pathway” to an agreement.
Tusk said, however, that “time was practically up” and there was “no guarantee” of success.
“Prime Minister Johnson promised the EU to come forward with a solution that would work for all,” he said. “A solution that would not only satisfy the hardcore Brexiters but also solve our well-known and legitimate objectives: to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland, to protect the Good Friday agreement, and ensure the integrity of the single market.
“Unfortunately we are still in a situation in which the UK has not come forward with a workable realistic proposal.”
Tusk said he told Johnson a week ago that “if there were no such proposals by today I would announce publicly that there are no more chances – because of objective reasons – for a deal for the incoming European council””.
“However, yesterday, when the Irish taoiseach and the UK prime minister met they both saw for the first time a pathway to a deal. I have received promising signals from the taoiseach that a deal is still possible.”
He said technical talks were taking place in Brussels on Friday.
“Of course, there is no guarantee of success and the time is practically up, but even the slightest chance must be used. A no-deal Brexit will never be the choice of the EU.”
Tusk was speaking as a meeting in Brussels between Barnier and the UK Brexit secretary, Stephen Barclay, came to an end.
The two men met for almost two and a half hours over a working breakfast in the European commission’s headquarters to discuss the possibility of reopening negotiations based on London’s latest proposals.
“Be patient,” Barnier told reporters as he left the meeting. “Brexit is like climbing a mountain. We need vigilance, determination and patience.”
A spokeswoman for the European commission said Barnier would debrief ambassadors and MEPs on the European parliament’s Brexit steering group. She said: “Michel Barnier had a constructive meeting this morning with Steve Barclay. It was a constructive meeting, and on that basis you can assume they have exchanged ideas and they discussed many different angles.”
The British government is keen to open “tunnel” negotiations with the commission on the detail of a deal.
If Barnier agreed with Varadkar that the substance of the meeting with Johnson was “sufficient to allow negotiations to resume in Brussels” it would be a major boost for the UK government.
The key sticking points are two-fold: 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.
Hopes of securing a deal for sign-off by EU leaders at a summit next week had appeared all but dead until Wednesday, with talks between UK and EU officials stalled.
The education secretary, Gavin Williamson, said on Friday the cabinet had been briefed on the Johnson-Varadkar meeting, but would not say what concessions may have prompted the surprise optimism.
“I had a very nice briefing this morning which was very much appreciated … It does not benefit anyone to have a running commentary on live negotiations,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
Johnson’s proposals for the Irish border after Brexit had been roundly criticised by Barnier, who played down any optimism during his address on Wednesday to the European parliament. “We’re not really in a position where we’re able to find an agreement,” he said.
EU officials have expressed scepticism about the sudden outbreak of optimism.
After Barnier’s meeting with Barclay, he will brief ambassadors of the EU27.
Should talks resume in earnest in Brussels, a meeting on Sunday between the French president, Emmanuel Macron, and the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, is seen as a second staging post to delivering a deal for EU leaders to agree on on Thursday.