Britain and the European Union were on the verge of a last-minute Brexit deal yesterday but Prime Minister Boris Johnson still has work to do at home to ensure his government and factious parliament approve the plan.
“The basic foundations of this agreement are ready and theoretically we could accept a deal tomorrow,” said European Council president Donald Tusk, who will chair a summit of EU leaders, including Johnson, today and tomorrow.
However, Tusk said in comments broadcast by Polish broadcaster TVN 24 that “certain doubts have appeared from the British side”, a reference to Johnson’s need to win over politicians who fear he may have conceded too much.
French President Emmanuel Macron said an agreement was being finalised and hoped it could be approved today.
“I want to believe an agreement is being finalised and that we will be able to endorse it today,” Macron said at a news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Toulouse.
Merkel said she believed slightly more that a deal was possible.
The EU leaders could sign off a deal at their summit but any approval would be conditional on the British House of Commons backing it at a special sitting on Saturday.
A short delay of Britain’s October 31 departure date would follow to polish the detail.
If Johnson fails to nail down the terms of Britain’s exit from the European Union, or fails to get a deal ratified in the UK house, he will almost certainly have to seek a longer extension of the departure date more than three years after the country voted in a referendum to leave.
After another day of technical talks in Brussels, EU officials said an agreement had been reached on customs arrangements for Northern Ireland and on ‘level playing field’ provisions on labour and environment standards that the EU has insisted on to ensure fair competition under a new trade deal after Brexit.
But while differences over the divorce between the world’s fifth-largest economy and its biggest trading bloc had almost all been resolved, “overall backing from the British government” was still needed to seal an agreement, an EU diplomat said.
The main stumbling block remaining for Johnson appeared to be objections from a small Northern Ireland political party whose votes he must secure to get any deal through parliament.
The sticking point in the long-running talks with Brussels over Brexit, which has already been delayed twice, was the border between EU member Ireland and the British province of Northern Ireland.
The conundrum for London was how to prevent the frontier becoming a backdoor into the EU’s single market without erecting controls which could undermine the 1998 peace agreement that ended decades of conflict in the province.
It eventually proposed that Northern Ireland remain in the UK customs area.
However, tariffs would apply on goods crossing from mainland Britain to Northern Ireland if they were deemed to be headed further, to Ireland and the bloc’s single market.
To get a deal that hinges on this through parliament, where he does not have a majority, Johnson will likely need backing from the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which says maintaining the UK’s economic integrity is sacrosanct.
Pro-Brexit lawmakers from Johnson’s governing Conservative Party say they will only back a deal if it has gained the support of the DUP, which fears Northern Ireland could be left behind in the EU’s orbit when Britain leaves.
Johnson’s spokesman said towards the end of the day that talks with the DUP were still underway in London.
A central figure in the 2016 referendum who came to power as leader of the Conservative Party in July, Johnson has pledged to take Britain out of the EU on October 31 with or without a deal.
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