EU officials are ready to look at “realistic” proposals from Boris Johnson on the Irish backstop – the main obstacle to a Brexit deal – but are pessimistic about his government’s chances of coming up with workable ideas.
Downing Street’s optimism over an apparent shift in the EU’s willingness to negotiate could be scuppered by a new Irish push to reinforce the importance of the insurance policy against a hard border on the island of Ireland.
Johnson’s Europe envoy, David Frost, is due to return to Brussels on Wednesday for meetings with officials as both sides strive to avoid a no-deal Brexit on 31 October.
After the G7 summit and meetings with Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron in Berlin and Paris, the EU is taking the prime minister more seriously as a dealmaker. EU officials now think he is genuine about wanting an agreement, but are sceptical he can bring his party with him.
One senior EU official told the Guardian the sequence of meetings in Berlin, Paris and Biarritz had introduced a new dynamic: “While we are not in a situation where we are thinking that Johnson is really serious about a deal, at least there is that possibility that he might be and that is a big change.”
“The political arithmetic hasn’t changed, the political timetable hasn’t changed. But we have to listen and we have to look [at his ideas],” the official added.
Johnson spoke to the president of the European commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, on Tuesday evening. A commission statement said that in the call “President Juncker repeated his willingness to work constructively with prime minister Johnson and to look at any concrete proposals he may have, as long as they are compatible with the withdrawal agreement. A ‘no-deal’ scenario will only ever be the UK’s decision, not the EU’s.”
A Downing Street source said that there was still not a substantive “openness to action” despite a “shift in rhetoric” from EU leaders. No 10 believes the EU27 must consider whether to approve a new negotiating mandate, something hinted at by Juncker in his call with Johnson. “That would be a sign they are serious about this,” a source said.
The EU sees a chance to reach a deal after Johnson declared in Berlin last week that he was more than happy to accept a “blistering timetable” of 30 days to find a compromise. This U-turn from his previous refusal to talk unless the EU scrapped the backstop was seen as an important shift in the UK accepting the onus of finding the solution.
“The ball is in London’s court,” said an EU diplomat. “Boris Johnson hasn’t tabled a concrete plan, but there is certainly a slight hope that a solution can be found.”
It is understood No 10 believes there has been a “rhetorical shift” from the EU compared with a month ago when the backstop and withdrawal agreement were considered sacrosanct.
This subtle change has been signalled by the EU chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, who said the bloc was ready to analyse British proposals that were “realistic, operational and compatible with our principles”.
Diplomats have pointed out that the backstop is written as a protocol, separate to the withdrawal agreement. Although this interpretation is not shared by all Brussels insiders, such nuances could open the way to a face-saving compromise.
Legal niceties aside, all EU officials stress that any alternative to the backstop must do the same job. “A withdrawal agreement … without having an insurance policy is not going to work,” said another EU diplomat. “We are quite serious about looking at proposals from the UK side to do it differently.”
The diplomat said they were “not optimistic” Johnson could deliver. “We haven’t seen anything from the UK yet that gives an indication of where they want to go and therefore there is nothing we can entertain.”
Johnson is expected to meet Ireland’s taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, in Dublin early next week, a meeting that a Downing Street source described as “clearly crucial”.
Ireland’s deputy prime minister, Simon Coveney, started a five-city Brexit tour of EU capitals on Tuesday to reinforce the importance of the backstop and Good Friday agreement for Ireland’s economic and social stability, in a challenge to the perception that the EU is showing signs of flexibility on the measure.
The narrow landing ground for a deal was illustrated by the cool reaction in Brussels to an alternative backstop plan drafted by a British former commission official and two academics. Jonathan Faull, who led the commission taskforce during David Cameron’s renegotiation, and his colleagues said they had come up with “an offer the EU and UK cannot refuse”.
The plan would allow different regulatory standards in Northern Ireland and Ireland while avoiding the need for a sea border. It would require the UK and Ireland to make it a criminal offence to knowingly export goods across the frontier that breached standards on either side. The proposal has attracted “considerable interest”, the authors told Politico.
But the senior EU official said it was a retread of Theresa May’s doomed Chequers plan, rejected by Brussels partly because it required the EU to outsource customs controls to the UK. “It is magical thinking written in very polite and crisp English,” the source said.
Even if Johnson comes up with proposals that have eluded the British government for the last three years, he may have run out of time to pass them through parliament, where he has a majority of one.
EU insiders are also unconvinced that Johnson’s advisers or the Conservative party would support a compromise. “Is no deal better to secure his [Johnson’s] own position?” asked one diplomat. “Yes, because anything else will lead to the breakup of the Tory party. I do not see this Tory government going for a deal. That is what troubles me.”
A UK government spokesperson said: “We are ready to negotiate in good faith an alternative to the backstop with provisions to ensure the Irish border issues are dealt with where they should always have been: in the negotiations on the future agreement between the UK and the EU.
“The UK government is working at pace to find a wide range of flexible and creative solutions to the unique circumstances on the island of Ireland.”