Boris Johnson has been issued with an ultimatum by EU leaders ahead of crucial Brexit talks with Ireland’s prime minister Leo Varadkar: accept that Northern Ireland can remain in the EU customs union or there will be no withdrawal agreement.
The British prime minister will meet Mr Varadkar for private talks in the north-west of England on Thursday, with both sides far apart and with diplomats in London and Dublin pessimistic of progress ahead of an EU leaders’ summit next week.
Some British officials admitted the talks on a Brexit deal could be broken off on Friday, given Mr Johnson’s refusal to accept the EU’s demand that Northern Ireland must stay within the bloc’s customs union.
“We’re not expecting a breakthrough,” said one UK official ahead of the talks between the British and Irish prime ministers. “There is just a view that if they are in a room together for two hours perhaps we might be able to see a way through.”
The meeting comes with Anglo-Irish relations at their lowest ebb since the Northern Ireland troubles. Constant rows over how to avoid a hard Irish border after Brexit have placed huge strains on the close but historically troubled relationship.
In Downing Street the view is now strongly held that the EU is playing for time, paying lip service to the idea that a Brexit deal might be possible while making demands that are impossible for Mr Johnson to accept.
One ally of Mr Johnson said the chances of a deal before Britain’s scheduled departure date of October 31 were “about 5 per cent — and that’s on the optimistic end of the spectrum”.
Mr Johnson’s team believes that the EU will argue soon that “time has run out” for agreeing a revised withdrawal agreement and will then push the British prime minister into seeking a Brexit delay — against his will — to enable a general election.
Mr Johnson’s Brexit plan involves keeping Northern Ireland in the UK customs area, while placing the region under the EU’s single market rules.
It would result in a customs border on the island of Ireland, although the British prime minister says checks on goods could take place away from the frontier.
But Dublin supported the so-called backstop provision in the withdrawal agreement finalised by his predecessor Theresa May and the EU, under which the UK would be in a customs union with the bloc to avoid a hard Irish border.
Mr Johnson rejected the backstop because it could bind the UK into close ties with the EU, and Dublin is open to the idea of just Northern Ireland being in a customs union with the bloc.
Mr Varadkar told the Irish parliament on Wednesday he had several objections to Mr Johnson’s plan.
“Part of the difficulty at the moment is that the position of the UK government is that Northern Ireland must leave the EU customs union and be part of the UK customs union no matter what the people of Northern Ireland think,” he said.
“That is its position and that creates a grave difficulty for us because we want there to be a deal that respects the wishes of the people of Northern Ireland and the people in this republic too.”
Mr Varadkar was reflecting recent polling that suggests people in Northern Ireland would favour staying in the EU customs union.
Irish officials said the British prime minister must move first if there is to be a Brexit deal. “We can’t do it without customs on the table,” said one.
But Mr Johnson’s team argues that he has already made concessions by proposing that Northern Ireland remain under EU single market rules covering agriculture, food and manufactured goods, and that it is Mr Varadkar’s turn to move.
Jean-Claude Juncker, European Commission president, told MEPs on Wednesday that he did not exclude a Brexit deal being reached.
But Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, told MEPs that Mr Johnson’s idea of managing a new customs border on the island of Ireland was “largely based on exemptions, derogations, on technology that has yet to be developed”.
Mr Barnier also rejected Mr Johnson’s proposal under which Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist party could wield an effective veto in the Stormont assembly on whether the region should stay aligned with EU single market rules.
Mr Johnson’s aides expect at some point that the EU will offer the idea of a “time-limited Northern Ireland-only backstop dressed up in consent” — in other words, keeping the region in the bloc’s customs union unless both nationalist and unionist parties in the Stormont assembly agreed to leave it.
That idea was floated on Wednesday in The Times and was immediately denounced by the DUP, which props up Mr Johnson’s government at Westminster. “It will go nowhere,” said Sammy Wilson, DUP Brexit spokesman.
Unless Mr Johnson takes on the DUP and agrees to put Northern Ireland in the EU customs area, the Brexit talks appear doomed to failure.
In Brussels attention is already turning to the length and terms of any Brexit delay the EU might offer the UK.