Boris Johnson has said he is “cautiously optimistic” he can strike a Brexit deal, as he prepares for a series of meetings in New York on Monday with key players in the deadlocked negotiations.
Mr Johnson is set to meet Angela Merkel, German chancellor, Emmanuel Macron, French president, and Donald Tusk, European Council president, amid warnings from Brussels that the two sides are still far apart.
The British prime minister, who arrived in New York on Sunday, will hold talks on the margins of the UN General Assembly. Negotiations continue to founder on the question of the so-called backstop to maintain an open Irish border.
Mr Johnson hinted to journalists en route to the US that he might be willing to go further in creating an “all Ireland” economy — leaving Northern Ireland closely aligned to the EU single market — as part of a deal.
The prime minister has already proposed creating a single “all Ireland” regulatory regime for animals and food, and was challenged on why he could not extend the same principle to manufactured goods.
“That’s an interesting question,” Mr Johnson said, before explaining that he wanted to ensure that the whole UK must leave the EU, with the ability to diverge on standards for industrial goods.
However, he has also suggested that Northern Ireland might follow EU rules in some areas if “consent” was given by a reconvened Stormont assembly, Northern Ireland’s devolved legislature.
“The problem with the current backstop is it would prevent the UK from diverging in industrial standards,” he said. “We may want to regulate differently. But there’s also a strong incentive to keep goods moving fluidly. We think we can do both.”
Even if Mr Johnson agreed to develop a pan-Ireland standards regime, creating a regulatory border in the Irish Sea, it would not settle the separate issue of customs controls, including tariffs and rules of origin, and VAT collection.
Mr Johnson insists there cannot be a customs border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, implying checks at the border in Ireland. EU negotiators say that Mr Johnson’s proposals are, therefore, fundamentally flawed.
The prime minister insisted that “a great deal of progress has been made” and that the EU was now ready to at least discuss replacing the backstop, the insurance against the return of a hard border in Ireland in the event that no future EU-UK trade deal addresses the issue.
But he admitted that he did not expect a “New York breakthrough”. Full details of a British proposal are not expected until the end of next week at the earliest, after the Conservative party conference in Manchester.
However, Mr Johnson’s suggestion that Britain could leave the EU on October 31 and sort out some of the details around the Irish border question later, during a standstill transition period, has been firmly rejected by Dublin and Brussels.
“There are clearly gaps, still difficulties,” the prime minister said. “There is a way to do that. It will take political will to get there. Cautiously optimistic is about right.
“I think the interesting thing about the current situation is there’s a strong coincidence of motive among partners around the table,” he added. “A large number of the important players now want a deal. That goes for the UK government, our German and Irish friends, the French.”
Separately, Jean-Claude Juncker, European Commission president, said in an interview in El País: “I don’t share the idea of those who think that Johnson is playing with us.
“I think he is trying to find an acceptable agreement for both the British Parliament and the European Parliament.”