Brussels has decided to enter intensive and secretive Brexit negotiations with the United Kingdom, in what is seen as a major boost for UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s prospects of brokering a fresh withdrawal deal with the European Union.
The accelerated talks were agreed to after a “constructive meeting” in Brussels on Friday between the bloc’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, and the UK’s Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay.
While nothing has been agreed, and all parties indicate a deal is still some way off, the beginning of the famed “tunnel” phase of negotiations suggests the EU side is taking Johnson’s latest proposals seriously and is prepared to put in the effort to see if they can make them work and come to some agreement.
After talks came close to hitting the buffers earlier this week, Johnson managed to win some confidence he could secure an agreement after a positive meeting on Thursday with Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar.
Following the Anglo-Irish talks on Thursday, the European Commission said ambassadors agreed on Friday to “intensify discussions over the coming days”.
This takes the negotiations into “the tunnel”, which is Brussels jargon for an in-depth phase of talks among a select group of negotiators designed to minimise leaks.
While details are not yet known, any compromise by Johnson will likely be seen as unacceptable by hardline Eurosceptics within his own party, and possibly by influential members of the DUP, a conservative party in Northern Ireland which propped up the minority administration of his predecessor, Theresa May.
Amid the ongoing talks on Friday, European Council President Donald Tusk offered Johnson some tepid positivity and revealed he had threatened the UK prime minister with publicly announcing on Friday that all opportunities of securing a deal by the crucial EU summit on October 17 and 18 had been exhausted.
But he ruled out making that declaration, offering to hold out for the “slightest chance” of success, after speaking with Ireland’s Varadkar.
“I have received promising signals from the Taoiseach that a deal is still possible,” Tusk said.
“Of course there is no guarantee of success and the time is practically up but even the slightest chance must be used.”
The change of heart prompted speculation of a compromise on the contentious issue of the Irish backstop to prevent a hard border returning to the island of Ireland.
Sterling rose sharply on international money markets in the wake of Thursday’s talks, on which the cabinet received a briefing on Friday morning.
Johnson must return from next week’s crucial summit of heads of government with a deal he can get past MPs by October 19 if he is not to face further demands to comply with a law which would see him asking for a Brexit extension to the end of January – even though he has said he would rather be “dead in a ditch” than request a delay.
Despite making a serious legal pledge to a court that he would abide by the law, the prime minister and his government allies have frequently said the UK would leave the EU by the October 31 deadline “come what may”, raising concerns for the rule of law in one of the world’s oldest parliamentary democracies.
It is likely an emergency Saturday sitting of Parliament will be held on October 19.
Many MPs believe if he cannot get a deal, Johnson will use the occasion to push for a “people versus Parliament” general election as early as next month.
If he is able to reach a deal with the EU27, he would need the backing of the DUP and hardline Brexit-backing Tories to give it any chance of getting it through Parliament.
Meanwhile, London has signed deals worth £86.6m ($109.5m) with shipping firms to ensure the supply of vital medicines in the event of border chaos after the country leaves the EU.
The UK transport ministry said the six-month contracts meant that Brittany Ferries, DFDS, P&O and Stena Line would be ready to deliver capacity equivalent to thousands of trucks each week after the October 31 deadline for Brexit.
The firms would operate on routes which are less likely to face border disruption in the event of a no-deal Brexit.
In February, the government scrapped a £14m ($17.8m) contract it signed with a company to provide extra ferries in the event of a no-deal Brexit – mostly because the company did not have any ships and had copied chunks of its website from that of a pizza restaurant. Further ferry contracts were later cancelled at a reported cost of £50m ($63m) to the taxpayer.
The new contracts will remain in place for the next four years in case further help is needed.
A pharmaceutical industry group said the announcement would help companies finalise their plans for a no-deal Brexit.
“This capacity is an important part of our members’ preparations,” said Mike Thompson, chief executive of the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry.
“Stockpiles are also in place, and some companies have already sourced their own alternative ferry routes.”
The “no-deal” preparations were announced as police officers warned a disorderly EU withdrawal would lead to forces around the country being forced to prioritise which criminal activity to deal with.
National Police Chiefs’ Council lead Chief Constable Charlie Hall also warned there was a chance a no-deal Brexit could result in difficulties arresting foreign suspects, while there was a spike in September in the number of MPs accessing a dedicated police service designed to offer added security to parliamentarians.