Boris Johnson and Ireland’s premier Leo Varadkar have agreed they can see “a pathway” to a Brexit deal which could allow Britain to leave the EU on October 31.
Following more than two hours of “detailed and constructive” talks in the Wirral, the pair agreed to “reflect further” and brief their teams so they can restart formal negotiations in Brussels for the first time since the prime minister took office.
The meeting had been billed as a make-or-break moment for the prime minister’s hopes of getting a Brexit deal done in time for Britain to leave the EU on Halloween.
While the timescale is increasingly tight, Varadkar suggested a breakthrough had been made and that Johnson may be able to fulfil his pledge to deliver Brexit on October 31 - with a deal.
The Taoiseach told reporters: “I think it is possible for us to come to an agreement, to have a treaty to allow the UK to leave the EU in an orderly fashion, and to have that done by the end of October, but there’s many in the slip between cup and lip.”
Varadkar said the meeting was “very positive and very promising” but stressed there were issues “yet to be fully resolved”.
It comes after Johnson’s “two borders for four years” offer was rejected by the EU because it would give the Northern Irish DUP an effective veto on future trade arrangements on the island of Ireland.
Ireland also raised concerns about Johnson’s plans to introduce customs controls on goods travelling between Northern Ireland and the Republic – with the idea of any kind of checks a highly controversial subject on the island.
Varadkar said the talks had centred on these two areas, and suggested Johnson may have offered a climbdown on customs which led to questions about whether the two sides were reviving the so-called Northern Ireland-only backstop rejected by Theresa May.
The Irish premier made clear he was focused on ensuring “there is no customs border between North and South” and said the talks were “sufficient” for formal negotiations to resume in Brussels.
“In terms of how long it would take, I can’t predict that with any certainty but I think all sides would like there to be an agreement next week at the (European) Council (summit) if possible,” he said.
“Obviously there’s a further deadline after that which is October 31, so I would say a short pathway rather than a long one, but it’s impossible to predict that for sure.”
EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier and UK Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay will now meet on Friday morning to take stock of the talks.
A joint statement from the two leaders read: “The prime minister and Taoiseach have had a detailed and constructive discussion
“Both continue to believe that a deal is in everybody’s interest. They agreed that they could see a pathway to a possible deal.
“Their discussion concentrated on the challenges of customs and consent.
“They also discussed the potential to strengthen bilateral relations, including on Northern Ireland.
“They agreed to reflect further on their discussions and that officials would continue to engage intensively on them.
“Following their discussions the Taoiseach will consult with the (EU) taskforce 50 and the Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay will meet Michel Barnier tomorrow morning.”