Donald Tusk warned that ‘time is practically up’ to get a Brexit deal today – amid frantic last-ditch talks in Brussels.
The EU council president hailed ‘positive signs’ as Brexit Secretary Steve Barclay and Michel Barnier met for two hours of intensive wrangling in the Belgian capital.
Officials are nervously awaiting news from the sessions, which came after dying hopes of a settlement were dramatically revived.
The new optimism was sparked when Boris Johnson and Irish PM Leo Varadkar holed up in a Merseyside wedding venue yesterday for three hours of intense wrangling.
They emerged claiming they could see the ‘path to a deal’, with Mr Varadkar adding that it was still possible for the UK to leave the bloc by Mr Johnson’s ‘do or die’ deadline of October 31.
The shape of the new blueprint is far from clear, with both sides insisting they have not given up on red lines. Most Cabinet ministers have not been briefed on the details of the proposals.
But there is speculation the plan might try to give Northern Ireland the ‘best of both worlds’ – staying within both the UK and EU customs unions.
Brexit Secretary Steve Barclay and Michel Barnier were all smiles today as they met for crucial talks as the sides make one last push for a deal
Mr Barclay arrived at the EU commission’s headquarters in the Belgian capital this morning
This model would be based on an idea previously floated when Theresa May was PM, and could see EU tariffs apply on goods going from mainland Britain to the island of Ireland – but rebates given to businesses in the north as if they were in the UK customs jurisdiction.
That could potentially do away with the need for border infrastructure on the island, although some doubt it will end up being acceptable to the DUP as there would be an administrative border in the Irish Sea.
What happens next in the Brexit crisis?
Here is how the coming weeks could pan out:
Today: Michel Barnier and Steve Barclay holding talks in Brussels. It is the EU’s deadline for having a deal in place ready for next week’s summit.
October 14: Parliament is due to return for the Queen’s Speech.
October 17-18: A crunch EU summit in Brussels. Any deal could be signed off by leaders here.
October 19: Parliament will sit on Saturday for the first time since the Falklands War.
f there is no Brexit deal by this date Remainer legislation obliges the PM to beg the EU for an extension to avoid No Deal.
Jeremy Corbyn has said that he will only let Mr Johnson trigger an election after an extension has been secured.
If there is a deal, it will start being rushed through Parliament immediately.
October 31: The current deadline for the UK to leave the EU.
November/December: An election looks inevitable.
If the meeting between Mr Barclay and Mr Barnier has gone well, it should lead to the so-called ‘tunnel’ of intensive negotiations in the coming days – ahead of a crunch EU summit next Thursday.
Speaking before the session broke up, Mr Tusk said he had received ‘promising signals’ from the Irish.
‘I have received promising signals from the Taoiseach that a deal is still possible,’ he said on a visit to Cyprus.
‘Of course there is no guarantee of success and the time is practically up, but even the slightest chance must be used.’
But France’s European affairs minister, Amelie de Montchalin sounded a note of caution, saying she still believes No Deal ‘is probable, at this stage’.
In an interview with France Inter radio this morning, Ms de Montchalin also suggested there was little reason to grant an extension beyond October 31.
‘I have a fundamental question: why give more time? If it is time for the sake of time? It has taken one year, even three years, and we don’t really get it,’ she said.
Although he was positive after the talks yesterday, Mr Varadkar did warn that negotiations on a deal could yet collapse, saying: ‘There’s many a slip between cup and lip and lots of things that are not in my control.’
The summit, at Thornton Manor in Cheshire, was attended by only the PM’s most senior officials, including chief adviser Dominic Cummings and Cabinet Secretary Sir Mark Sedwill.
At one point, the two leaders even took a walk in the grounds as they strove to find a way through the impasse.
When they emerged, they issued a statement, hailing a ‘detailed and constructive’ discussion, and saying: ‘Both continue to believe that a deal is in everybody’s interest. They agreed that they could see a pathway to a possible deal.’
Michael Gove described the talks as ‘very encouraging’, adding: ‘I hope the optimistic and constructive approach that both sides showed can result in more progress.’
Mr Varadkar and UK officials voiced hopes that Mr Barnier would agree to take the negotiations into the ‘tunnel’, but there were fears the Frenchman would refuse to countenance anything that might dilute the single market.
In another warning sign, Eurosceptic MPs have warned that Mr Johnson would face defeat at Westminster if he offered any further significant concessions.
No10 selected 19th-century Thornton Manor – now a luxury wedding venue – as a ‘neutral’ venue for the negotiations and tried to cloak the talks in secrecy.
Mr Varadkar, who has long been seen as the roadblock to an agreement, added that he even believed a deal could be ‘done by the end of October’
After three hours of talks at a country manor on the Wirral, the Prime Minister and his Irish counterpart said they could see a ‘pathway to a possible deal’
Mr Varadkar has been the most hardline supporter of the so-called Irish backstop, which Mr Johnson has pledged to scrap.
But with the UK and the EU potentially just three weeks from a damaging No Deal, the two men appeared to set aside their previous positions in an attempt to find a compromise.
To the surprise of aides, the two leaders banished officials for almost two hours as they talked through potential ideas – and held frank talks on what would be acceptable to their parliaments and voters.
Speaking after the meeting, Mr Varadkar struck a remarkably upbeat tone, describing the talks as ‘very promising’.
‘I think it is possible for us to come to an agreement, to have a treaty agreed, to allow the UK to leave the EU in an orderly fashion and to have that done by the end of October,’ he added.
Mr Varadkar added: ‘In terms of concessions, I don’t think this should be seen in the context of who’s making concessions or who the winners or losers are.’
The Taoiseach insisted the new plan would meet Ireland’s key objective that there would be ‘no customs border’ between Northern Ireland and the Republic.
What is the Irish backstop and why is it so divisive?
The so-called Irish border backstop is one of the most controversial parts of the existing Brexit deal. This is what it means:
What is the backstop?
The backstop was invented to meet promises to keep open the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland even if there is no comprehensive UK-EU trade deal.
The divorce deal says it will kick in automatically at the end of the Brexit transition period if that agreement is not in place.
It effectively keeps the UK in a customs union with the EU, and Northern Ireland in both the customs union and single market.
This means many EU laws will keep being imposed on the UK, restricting its ability to do its own trade deals. It also means regulatory checks on some goods crossing the Irish Sea.
Why have Ireland and the EU demanded it?
Because the UK is leaving the customs union and single market, the EU said it needed guarantees that people and goods circulating inside its border – in this case in Ireland – met its rules.
This is covered by the Brexit transition, which effectively maintains the status quo, and can in theory be done in the comprehensive EU-UK trade deal.
But the EU said there had to be a backstop to cover what happens in any gap between the transition and final deal.
Why do critics hate it?
Because Britain cannot decide when to leave the backstop.
Getting out – even if there is a trade deal – can only happen if both sides agree and Brexiteers fear the EU will unreasonably demand the backstop continues so EU law continues to apply in Northern Ireland.
Northern Ireland MPs also hate the regulatory border in the Irish Sea, insisting it unreasonably carves up the United Kingdom.
What are the UK’s new proposals?
The latest blueprint being floated would not be the same as a previous Northern Ireland-only backstop floated by Brussels, which was dismissed by Theresa May as something no British PM could accept.
That would have involved the province staying within the EU’s tax jurisdiction.
Instead, the idea is thought to be a much looser alignment of agricultural and food regulations with Ireland.
That could help avoid many checks on the border, but it is far from clear it would be acceptable either to the EU or the DUP.