Boris Johnson’s latest proposals for a Brexit deal have been given the green light by the EU for “intense negotiations”.
Michel Barnier, the bloc’s chief negotiator, got the go-ahead from EU27 ambassadors to enter the critical phase of talks known as “the tunnel” on Friday, a source inside the room confirmed to Sky News.
That is Brussels jargon for when discussions on a plan go into lockdown, involving only the key players.
It came immediately after Mr Barnier held private talks with Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay, which he called “constructive”.
EU Council President Donald Tusk also revealed that, after Prime Minister Boris Johnson met his Irish counterpart Leo Varadkar yesterday, “both saw for the first time a pathway to a deal”.
He cautioned there was “no guarantee of success and the time is practically up” but insisted “even the slightest chance must be used”.
Friday marks 20 days until Brexit – but just eight before Mr Johnson will be forced to ask for a delay if he has not secured an agreement.
After the bilateral talks in Wirral yesterday, Mr Varadkar said he hoped the progress they had made would be enough to restart intensive negotiations Brussels ahead of next week’s crucial EU summit.
Mr Johnson almost certainly needs the gathering of 28 leaders in Brussels on October 17 and 18 to sign off on an agreement in order to be able to take the UK out of the EU on 31 October with a deal.
The upbeat mood is a big turnaround from three days ago, when Downing Street said a deal was “essentially impossible” after a call between the prime minister and the German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
The Irish Times reports that there has been “significant movement” from the British side on customs, which could mean a revival of the backstop or a customs border in the Irish sea.
The backstop is designed as an insurance mechanism to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland regardless of the future EU-UK trade relationship.
Speaking to reporters at Liverpool Airport before his return to Dublin, Mr Varadkar said while there were still issues to be resolved, he believed it was possible to meet the Halloween deadline.
“I think it is possible for us to come to an agreement, to have a treaty to allow the UK to leave the EU in an orderly fashion, and to have that done by the end of October, but there’s many a slip between cup and lip,” he said.
Mr Varadkar refused to be drawn on any concessions made by either side, while British sources refused to be drawn on the Irish Times report suggesting “significant movement” by the UK.
France’s Europe minister Amelie de Montchalin said on Friday a no-deal divorce remained “likely”.
“At this point, if talks do not proceed the way we hope they will, if there is no desire, particularly from the British side, for compromise, then a no-deal is possible,” she warned.
Political reporter @breeallegretti Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay is meeting the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier in Brussels to assess whether they can salvage a deal by next week. The pair will see if there are grounds to move forward, after Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his Irish counterpart Leo Varadkar yesterday said they could “see a pathway to a possible deal” .