Friday 18 October 2019

Brexit breakthrough: Hope for deal as Boris Johnson finally gives ground on customs checks

Leaders talk face to face as they try to deliver Brexit by October 31

Boris Johnson and Leo Varadkar at Thornton Manor. Photo: @leovaradkar twitter
Boris Johnson and Leo Varadkar at Thornton Manor. Photo: @leovaradkar twitter

Hugh O'Connell and Kevin Doyle

A Brexit breakthrough is on the cards after British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar negotiated a "pared-down" free trade agreement.

The potential deal, which does not have EU approval, could remove the need for significant customs checks on the island of Ireland.

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Instead, the heavier checks would be moved to ports and airports, effectively creating a border in the Irish Sea.

The move was discussed during a three-hour meeting after which the two leaders said they could "see a pathway to a deal".

Mr Varadkar tossed aside the long-standing position that Ireland would not negotiate directly with the UK on Brexit.

Much of the meeting at a Merseyside wedding venue was one-on-one before the Taoiseach and Mr Johnson were joined by officials.

The Irish side were providing updates to the EU taskforce in Brussels as the day wore on. Mr Johnson drafted in senior officials from the UK's Revenue and Customs service late on in the talks at Thornton Manor.

Both sides agreed not to reveal the detail of their talks publicly until it has been assessed by the EU's chief negotiator Michel Barnier and his team.

READ MORE: Hugh O'Connell: Not-so-secret summit in Rooneyland yields fresh hopes of unlikely Brexit deal

However, amid renewed hope a deal can be secured in time for a UK exit on October 31, Tánaiste Simon Coveney said: "Mark my words, we are not there yet."

One on one: Boris Johnson and Leo Varadkar walk in the gardens of Thornton Manor, near Liverpool. Photo: Noel Mullen
One on one: Boris Johnson and Leo Varadkar walk in the gardens of Thornton Manor, near Liverpool. Photo: Noel Mullen

And a DUP source told the Irish Independent Mr Varadkar had "over-egged" the outcome.

The Taoiseach "can't be getting what he wants on customs as Boris loses his majority for a deal the second he does", the source said.

Mr Johnson's offer last week would have seen Northern Ireland remain aligned to EU regulatory rules but outside the customs union.

This was rejected by the Irish Government on the grounds that it would require tariffs and in turn checks on goods crossing between the North and the Republic.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar arrives at Liverpool Airport ahead of private talks with Prime Minister Boris Johnson in a bid to break the Brexit deadlock as the departure deadline looms. Photo: Peter Byrne/PA Wire
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar arrives at Liverpool Airport ahead of private talks with Prime Minister Boris Johnson in a bid to break the Brexit deadlock as the departure deadline looms. Photo: Peter Byrne/PA Wire

READ MORE: John Downing: 'Promising signs, but just how big a breakthrough remains untold'

The latest development could see the UK agree to a special treaty which sources described as "a semi-free trade agreement".

It could involve Northern Ireland formally leaving the customs union but agreeing to follow its rules for a period.

The arrangement would have to given some form of consent by the people of Northern Ireland.

Speaking in Liverpool after his meeting, Mr Varadkar was giving little away but said he believed it was possible "to have a treaty agreed, 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 and lots of things that are not in my control," he cautioned.

When asked about who made concessions to break the impasse, the Taoiseach said: "I don't think this should be seen in the context of who's making concessions, or who the winners and losers are. I don't think that's the game any of us want to play."

On foot of the optimism, the pound made its biggest jump against the dollar in almost a year as investors seized on hopes of last-ditch progress.

READ MORE: Price of bread and dairy goods to soar if there's no deal, warns Central Bank

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin said he was "pleased that the megaphone diplomacy has been replaced by proper and serious Brexit discussion today".

"The signals coming from Liverpool are encouraging and we hope that positive momentum can be sustained over coming week," he said.

However, one European Commission source close to the Brexit process played down the positivity emerging from the Merseyside summit, saying early indications were that it "seems to be based on mood music rather than meat".

EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier will make a decision today on whether to restart formal talks with the UK's Brexit negotiating team following a meeting with Brexit Secretary Steve Barclay.

Aside from a joint statement with the Taoiseach, Mr Johnson made no public comment.

However, Michael Gove, the British minister in charge of preparations for Brexit, said: "The conversations between the prime minister and Leo Varadkar, they were cordial, they were constructive, they were open and they say there's going to be progress, so I'm delighted."

Irish Independent

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