The EU and UK will strive to get a Brexit deal over the line in the coming hours as Boris Johnson seeks to drum up political support for plans hammered out during marathon negotiations in Brussels.
Talks between British and EU teams ended around 1.30am on Wednesday and will resume this morning as the two sides work through the details of a plan for resolving the vexed issue of how to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland.
An EU official said that “talks continued late into the night and will continue today”. A UK official also said: “The teams worked into the night and continue to make progress. The teams will meet again this morning.”
EU chiefs had warned Mr Johnson on Tuesday that unless the UK made new concessions he would be forced to accept an extension to his October 31 exit deadline.
The pound slipped in early London dealings on Wednesday after a 1.4 per cent rise against the dollar on Tuesday on hopes of a breakthrough in Brexit talks. Sterling was off 0.24 per cent at $1.2756 in early Wednesday trading.
The British prime minister spent the eleventh hour haggling with Arlene Foster, leader of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist party, over a big cash payment for the region to help secure her support for the deal taking shape in Brussels.
One person briefed on the negotiations said the DUP was asking for “billions not millions” for Northern Ireland.
Mr Johnson held a series of meetings with Conservative Eurosceptics MPs and the DUP to persuade them to accept a deal that would impose customs checks on goods entering Northern Ireland.
British negotiators in Brussels were in constant contact with Number 10 to see how far they could go to meet EU demands, amid rising hopes that a deal could be concluded before the European Council meeting starting on Thursday.
One EU official said just before midnight on Tuesday that “important matters” were still unresolved. As well as the customs issue, the EU and UK also need a deal on how to give the Northern Ireland Assembly a say in the post-Brexit arrangements — a key British demand.
In a crucial breakthrough for Mr Johnson, the head of the hardline Tory European Research Group said a “tolerable” deal could be secured with the EU.
Steve Baker, who helped to vote down Theresa May’s Brexit deal on three occasions, emerged from 80 minutes of talks in Number 10 to declare: “I am optimistic it is possible to reach a tolerable deal that I am able to vote for.”
The DUP, which would have to accept a new customs border on the Irish Sea, told Mr Johnson that its support was contingent on more cash for Northern Ireland. “Clearly it’s going to be a big package,” said one person close to the talks.
Mrs Foster, who entered Downing Street at 7pm on Tuesday night with the DUP’s deputy leader Nigel Dodds, said it was vital that any final deal had the consent of both nationalist and unionist communities.
A DUP spokesperson said Mrs Foster and Mr Dodds met the prime minister in Downing Street for around 90 minutes.
“We respect the fact negotiations are ongoing therefore cannot give a detailed commentary but it would be fair to indicate gaps remain and further work is required,” the spokesperson said.
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Mr Johnson has long identified the summit as the crunch moment for Brexit negotiations, and failure to achieve a deal by then would leave him forced by UK law to seek a delay to Britain’s scheduled October 31 departure date.
“This is a moment of political leadership: does the UK want Brexit? If so, the EU is ready to conclude a deal,” said one EU official.
Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, is set to brief national ambassadors on progress on Wednesday afternoon. EU officials warn that a deal must be reached by this point for it to be submitted to this week’s summit.
Reporting by Jim Brunsden, Sam Fleming and Mehreen Khan in Brussels, Michael Peel in Luxembourg and George Parker in London