Brexit Talks Drag on as Key Johnson Ally Threatens Hold-Out

Ian Wishart

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U.K. and European Union officials edged closer to a last-minute Brexit deal -- but it risks being jeopardized by Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Northern Irish allies.

Talks will resume in Brussels on Wednesday after dragging on late into the night, according to an EU official. The discussions were constructive and negotiators continued to make progress, a British official said.

Getting a deal signed off in Brussels is just the first hurdle for Johnson. His biggest obstacle is back home. There, he will need to persuade the Democratic Unionist Party, which props up his minority administration, as well as hard-liners in his own Conservative Party to back his plan. A Brexit deal has been struck before: Johnson’s predecessor Theresa May clinched a deal with the EU, only for it to be shot down three times in Parliament.

This time, EU officials say Johnson won’t give the green light to a deal unless he is sure the DUP will back it. Party leader Arlene Foster spoke with Johnson for 90 minutes on Tuesday. Afterward, she issued a terse statement saying: “It would be fair to indicate gaps remain and further work is required.”

According to EU officials, Britain has made several big concessions in recent days to secure a deal, including accepting there will be customs checks between Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K. -- something vehemently opposed by the DUP.

While Foster’s party accounts for only 10 members of Parliament, several MPs in Johnson’s Conservatives have indicated they would only back an agreement that has the DUP’s support. But there were signs on Tuesday that they are falling into line after discussions with Johnson.

“I’m happy to say it was a very constructive conversation,” Steve Baker, chairman of the pro-Brexit European Research Group, told reporters as he left Downing Street. “I’m optimistic it is possible to reach a tolerable deal which I will be able to vote for.”

A deal would end three years of political turmoil since the U.K. voted to leave the world’s biggest trading bloc. The journey has tested its relationship with historic allies, soured the political debate back home, and tested the patience of voters. Fatigue has set in, and both sides want to move on.

“The initial indications are that we are making progress,” Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar told reporters in Dublin on Tuesday. “The negotiations are moving in the right direction.”

While there is palpable optimism that the finishing line is approaching, officials are extremely cautious. Throughout the Brexit talks, which started in July 2017, negotiators have got used to striking deals only for them to be shot down by the British government, the DUP or the U.K. Parliament.

Johnson hopes to put a deal to the vote in a special sitting of the House of Commons on Saturday so he can meet his Oct. 31 deadline for leaving the bloc.

Securing the DUP’s support may not be easy because the emerging proposal looks similar to May’s Northern Ireland “backstop” -- a measure that would keep the province in the EU customs union to avoid the need for border checks.

Red Lines

The party needs “a deal that respects Northern Ireland’s constitutional position as per the Belfast Agreement within the U.K. and indeed respects the economic integrity of the U.K. single market,” Foster said in an interview with Irish broadcaster RTE. She suggested that such a backstop would be unacceptable and that “things are very far off the mark in terms of all of that.”

Johnson’s plan focuses on keeping Northern Ireland in the U.K.’s customs union so that it can benefit from any trade deals Britain strikes after Brexit. But to avoid customs checks at the Irish border, the province would stick to EU customs rules. That means goods traveling from the rest of the U.K. to Northern Ireland would be subject to customs checks.

Negotiators have been looking at ways to reimburse Northern Irish businesses in case EU tariffs are higher than U.K. ones and how to avoid goods fraudulently traveling to the EU through Northern Ireland.

One diplomat said there’s a chance the two sides may not conclude the talks tonight, but they could still make sufficient progress for a “concept” of a legal text to be presented at the summit. This wouldn’t be a fully ready deal, but its main principles would be clearly outlined, according to the official.

In that case, it is possible that the leaders will decide that negotiations can continue after the summit. But some fear that a delay would kill the current momentum in the talks.

(Adds British comment in second paragraph.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Ian Wishart in Brussels at iwishart@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Ben Sills at bsills@bloomberg.net, Edward Evans, Flavia Krause-Jackson

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