Boris Johnson’s hopes of sealing a Brexit deal in time for a critical EU summit later this week were in jeopardy on Sunday evening after two days of intensive negotiations left Brussels baffled about the UK’s new customs proposals.
Michel Barnier, EU chief Brexit negotiator, told diplomats on Sunday evening that British plans to keep Northern Ireland in the UK’s customs territory while avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland were fiendishly complex and not yet properly worked out.
There was “no breakthrough yet”, said one EU diplomat, while noting it was positive that talks would continue in Brussels on Monday. “If the British government wants a solution, it must move quickly now. The clock is ticking.”
Another European official went further, saying that talks on Monday would be “one last chance” for the two sides to bridge their differences or risk failing to agree a deal by the time of the EU leaders’ summit on Thursday.
Diplomats said that the slow pace of progress in the talks has imperilled the possibility of a deal at the October 17-18 summit — a core priority for Mr Johnson — and increased the likelihood of an extra summit being held close to the end of the month. October 29 and 30 have been mooted as possible dates, just ahead of Britain’s scheduled EU departure date.
The latest news will come as a blow to Mr Johnson after hopes rose of a deal following breakthrough talks with Leo Varadkar, the Irish prime minister, last week. Downing Street had hoped the negotiators would be on a glide path to an agreement at Thursday’s summit, with any deal put to a vote in the House of Commons on Saturday.
In the talks over the weekend, the UK presented a plan that would involve tracking the destination of all goods entering Northern Ireland and applying differential treatment depending on their final destination.
The plan would legally leave Northern Ireland in the UK’s customs area, one of Mr Johnson’s political red lines, while — in theory — avoiding the need for a hard border in Ireland
Mr Barnier told diplomats that there was “no precedent” for such a dual customs system to coexist in one territory given the near-impossibility of tracking where goods end up and the complexity of modern supply chains.
In a statement, the European Commission warned that “a lot of work remains to be done”, adding that negotiations would continue on Monday. Talks had been “constructive”, it said.
One EU diplomat said the UK’s blueprint would lead to the “dismantling of the EU’s customs code” and leave the bloc open to widespread fraud in the absence of hard data about whether goods end up in the single market or not.
“We’ve told the UK our concerns about the single market and they don’t have any answers to it yet,” said the diplomat.
Mr Johnson is due to have another round of calls with senior European leaders to try to drum up support for his deal, including German chancellor Angela Merkel.
At the same time the prime minister is still trying to square off potential critics in Northern Ireland’s DUP and among Tory Eurosceptic MPs.
At Sunday lunchtime Mr Johnson briefed cabinet ministers on the latest state of talks. A government spokesperson said the prime minister reiterated “that a pathway to a deal could be seen but that there is still a significant amount of work to get there and we must remain prepared to leave on October 31”.
EU officials warned that there was a perilously narrow window available if the two sides were to hammer out a deal for leaders to sign off at this week’s summit.
“Day by day, it becomes more and more of a stretch,” said one official. “I’m not saying it’s impossible. It is very, very demanding.”
Scepticism also remains deep among EU27 states as to whether any deal will ultimately get through the British parliament.