Boris Johnson scheduled his first one-to-one talks with EU chief Jean-Claude Juncker yesterday amid growing optimism on both sides of the Channel about a Brexit deal.
The announcement of the meeting came amid claims that the DUP is shifting its red lines over the Irish border backstop.
The Prime Minister said he was now ‘cautiously optimistic’ about striking an agreement with Brussels before the October 31 deadline.
He will have a ‘working lunch’ with Mr Juncker and the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, in Luxembourg on Monday.
Boris Johnson scheduled his first one-to-one talks with EU chief Jean-Claude Juncker yesterday amid growing optimism on both sides of the Channel about a Brexit deal
Speaking in Rotherham yesterday, Mr Johnson said: ‘We are working incredibly hard to get a deal. There is the rough shape of the deal to be done. As some of you may have seen, I myself have been to talk to various other EU leaders, particularly in Germany, in France and in Ireland, where we made a good deal of progress.’
Of the Luxembourg meeting, Mr Johnson said: ‘We will talk about the ideas that we’ve been working on and we will see where we get. I would say I’m cautiously optimistic.’
Ireland’s man in Brussels, Phil Hogan, who will become the EU’s lead negotiator on a post-Brexit trade deal, also struck an upbeat tone. He said: ‘Recent events in London give us cause for some optimism.’
The DUP is reportedly softening its opposition to Northern Ireland having to abide by some EU rules after Brexit in order to resolve the backstop issue.
It was claimed it had privately dropped its objections to regulatory checks in the Irish Sea on ‘agri-goods’ that would carve out Ulster from the rest of the UK.
It is thought the alleged climbdown is partly due to the suggestion of Northern Ireland having a say over how or when such arrangements are implemented.
Johnson will have a ‘working lunch’ with Mr Juncker (right) and the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, in Luxembourg on Monday
This was said to be the subject of talks between Mr Johnson’s negotiator, David Frost, and EU officials yesterday.
Sources said the idea would involve Northern Ireland helping to decide whether it wanted to stick with all-Ireland arrangements, staying aligned to EU rules, or if it wanted to become part of the UK’s regulatory regime.
Brussels is said to be taking more seriously the idea of an all-Ireland food zone, first floated by Mr Johnson last week.
Agri-goods make up around 32 per cent of the value of trade crossing the Irish border – and 70 to 80 per cent in terms of volume.
Ireland’s man in Brussels, Phil Hogan, who will become the EU’s lead negotiator on a post-Brexit trade deal, also struck an upbeat tone
EU diplomats were briefed following the talks. One said: ‘It’s the best meeting since the negotiations with Frost started but not yet the beginning of a solution. There was serious engagement for the first time.’
However, Irish premier Leo Varadkar said: ‘I do believe when he [Mr Johnson] says he wants a deal on Brexit that he’s acting in good faith and our teams are in contact and we’re in contact and we’re exploring what is possible.
‘The gap is very wide but we will fight for and work for a deal until the last moment but not at any cost. And at the same time we’re preparing the country for No Deal if we end up in that scenario.’
A UK Government spokesman said: ‘The UK has presented some ideas on an all-island solution. Further discussions between teams will take place next week.’
However, Irish premier Leo Varadkar said: ‘I do believe when he [Mr Johnson] says he wants a deal on Brexit that he’s acting in good faith and our teams are in contact and we’re in contact and we’re exploring what is possible’
Mr Johnson has so far only spoken to Mr Juncker over the telephone. It means Monday’s working lunch will be the Prime Minister’s first face-to-face talks with the EU Commission president and Mr Barnier.
A commission spokesman said last night: ‘The reason the lunch is taking place in Luxembourg is that the president has to get to Strasbourg for plenary week [in the European Parliament]. Mr Johnson agreed to come to Luxembourg to facilitate this happening.’
Despite Mr Johnson saying he was nearer a deal, a German radio station last night reported Mr Juncker as saying he was not optimistic about finding alternative arrangements for solving the Irish border.
Deutschlandfunk reported a preview of an interview, scheduled to be played tomorrow, in which Mr Juncker hopes for alternative proposals, but warns that ‘time is getting short’.
Asked about No Deal he says: ‘Anyone who loves his country, and I assume that there are still patriots in Britain, would not want to wish his country such a fate.’