Belfast Telegraph

Brexit deal 'close' - reports PM preparing Irish Sea border concession to EU

European Union chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier, right, speaks with Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney, left, in Luxembourg (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)
European Union chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier, right, speaks with Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney, left, in Luxembourg (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)

Downing Street has said Brexit negotiations remain ongoing as reports suggested Boris Johnson is closing in on a new deal after giving significant ground to the EU over the Irish border.

The Prime Minister is in a race against time to get a fresh agreement negotiated in time for the Brussels summit of European leaders starting on Thursday.

The Guardian reported senior sources on both sides of the Channel saying that a draft treaty could be published on Wednesday morning after the UK agreed in principle there will be a customs border in the Irish Sea.

But the PM's official spokesman said: "Talks remain constructive but there is more work still to do."

Downing Street sources were also downplaying the chances of a breakthrough being imminent and an EU official stressed "talks are ongoing".

The DUP leadership met with Boris Johnson in Downing Street on Monday.

Neither side released a statement after the meeting which is understood to have lasted around 90 minutes.

Boris Johnson and DUP leader Arlene Foster
Boris Johnson and DUP leader Arlene Foster

Speaking to the BBC prior to that meeting, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said the speculation around any potential deal was not correct.

The MP told BBC Newsline the DUP position was "still very important" in terms of parliamentary arithmetic.

On Northern Ireland remaining in the EU's Custom Union, he said it was his party's understanding that was not the UK Government's position.

Meanwhile, Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said it remained uncertain whether a deal would be ready in time for the Brussels summit.

"The initial indications (from the EU) are that we are making progress, negotiations are moving in the right direction," he told reporters.

"But whether we will be able to conclude a revised Withdrawal Agreement, which is an international treaty, in time for the summit, that's as of now unclear."

Mr Varadkar also revealed that the PM told him during their meeting last week he was "confident" he would be able to do what Theresa May thrice failed to do by getting a deal through the House of Commons.

"I think what they (DUP) said they will wait until they've seen the final proposals before forming a judgment and I think that's a sensible decision to make," he said.

Asked about his meeting with Mr Johnson last week, the Taoiseach added: "What I said last week was that I saw a pathway towards an agreement, but there is a difference between a pathway and an agreement.

Leo Varadkar
Leo Varadkar

"What we discussed was those key stumbling blocks, consent on democracy, customs and the wider issues of the North/South, East/West relationship and I think we had a broad meeting of minds, but actually turning that into a legal agreement is a different thing.

"Our objectives have always been the same, it's to avoid a hard border north and south and allow the all-island economy to thrive and to allow North/South co-operation to resume as envisaged by the Good Friday Agreement and ensure the integrity of the single market and our place in it."

Suggestions a deal was closing in came as Downing Street declined to recognise a midnight deadline apparently set by EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier.

Mr Barnier was said to have warned that Mr Johnson needs to turn good intentions into a legal document by the end of Tuesday.

But the PM's official spokesman said: "We are working hard. The Prime Minister is aware of the time constraints that we are under."

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