LUXEMBOURG — European Union officials were hoping Tuesday that —after more than three years of false starts and sudden reversals — a Brexit deal with Britain might be in sight within hours.
The bloc said that it might be possible to strike a divorce deal by Thursday’s EU leaders’ summit, which comes just two weeks before the U.K.’s scheduled departure date of Oct. 31. One major proviso: The British government must make more compromises to seal an agreement in the coming hours.
Britain and the EU have been here before — within sight of a deal only to see it dashed — but a surge in the British pound Tuesday indicated hope that this time could be different. The currency rose against the dollar to its highest level in months.
Even though many questions remain, diplomats made it clear that both sides were within touching distance of a deal for the first time since a U.K. withdrawal plan fell apart in the British House of Commons in March.
Martin Schirdewan, a German member of the European Parliament’s Brexit Steering Group, said an agreement is “now within our grasp” following a breakthrough in negotiations.
Britain is scheduled to leave the EU on Oct. 31, and this week’s EU leaders’ meeting — the last scheduled summit before the Brexit deadline — was long considered the last opportunity to approve a divorce agreement. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson insists his country will leave at the end of the month with or without an agreement, although U.K. lawmakers are determined to push for another delay rather than risk a chaotic no-deal Brexit.
Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, said at a meeting of the bloc’s ministers in Luxembourg on Tuesday that the main challenge now is to turn the new British proposals on the complex Irish border issue into something legally binding. EU member Ireland has a land border with the U.K.’s Northern Ireland, and both want to keep goods and people flowing freely across the currently invisible border.
A frictionless border underpins both the local economy and the 1998 peace accord that ended decades of Catholic-Protestant violence in Northern Ireland. But once Britain exits, that border will turn into an external EU frontier that the bloc wants to keep secure.
Barnier wants a clear answer by Wednesday morning, so EU capitals can prepare for the bloc’s two-day summit that begins Thursday. “It is still possible this week,” Barnier said.
The big question is how far Johnson’s government is prepared to budge on its insistence that the U.K., including Northern Ireland, must leave the European Union’s customs union — something that would require checks on goods passing between the Britain and the EU, including on the island of Ireland.
The British government has given away little detail of the proposals it has made on that question; even government ministers have not been told specifics. In broad terms, the U.K. is proposing that Northern Ireland — but not the rest of the U.K. — continue to follow EU customs rules and tariffs after Brexit in order to remove the need for border checks.
But that sounds like a customs union in all but name and would mean new checks or tariffs on some goods moving between Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K.
An EU official said Barnier told a teleconference of some lawmakers that the Irish Sea would largely become the customs border between the EU and the U.K. That would avoid having a visible land border on the island of Ireland between the two. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the negotiations were ongoing, said some complicated issues were still being fought over.
But Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, the pro-British Protestant party that props up Johnson’s minority government, strongly opposes any measures that could loosen the bonds between Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K.
Brexit supporters are also wary that maintaining any kind of customs union with the EU will tie the U.K. to the bloc’s regulations and limit its ability to strike new trade deals around the world — thus undermining what were supposed to be some of the key benefits of a withdrawal.
The customs proposals on the table appear similar to those put forward by former Prime Minister Theresa May. Opposition from pro-Brexit lawmakers, including Johnson, led to those being rejected by Parliament three times.
In public, Johnson has not changed his tune. But the British leader was working hard behind the scenes to secure a deal that would allow him to fulfil his vow to take the U.K. out of the bloc.
Johnson’s spokesman, James Slack, rejected suggestions Britain had only until the end of the day to firm up its proposals but said “the prime minister is aware of the time constraints that we are under.”
On Tuesday, Johnson called French President Emmanuel Macron — one of the EU leaders most skeptical about Britain’s intentions — to discuss where elements of a compromise could be found. Slack called the conversation “constructive.”
Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney, who had a long, intense talk with Barnier early Tuesday, said the EU believes a deal “is difficult, but it is doable.” He said Barnier addressed EU ministers and “did point to progress in the last number of days where the gaps have been narrowed.”
Still, Dutch Foreign Minister Stef Blok said the British proposals to keep the Irish border protected from smuggling and fraud once it leaves the bloc were insufficient.
“The U.K. proposal contained some steps forward but not enough to guarantee that the internal market will be protected,” Blok said.
EU ministers insisted it was Johnson’s turn to make the next move — and he seemed to be listening. In addition to the call with Macron, Johnson shifted Britain’s weekly Cabinet meeting from Tuesday to Wednesday, so he could give his ministers a better idea of Brexit progress.
If talks fail or stumble ahead of the EU summit, there could always be an extraordinary meeting just ahead of the Oct. 31 Brexit departure — or the Brexit deadline could be extended again. It has already been postponed twice.