Normally, there is at least one place where Michel Barnier, the EU's Brexit chief negotiator, speaks relatively openly – meeting with EU ambassadors from the 27 member states. After all, if he negotiates with the British, then it is done on behalf of the member states. And if he closes a deal, then their heads of state and government must agree.
On Thursday afternoon, however, the tall Frenchman is buttoned up even in this elite circle. Sure, Barnier told the ambassadors what the British offer looks like in order to reach a withdrawal agreement by the end of the month. Barnier had just scurried from breakfast with British Brexit minister Stephen Barclay into the council building. Barcley, in turn, had provided his colleague with news of Boris Johnson's meeting with Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar on Thursday.
There is progress, Barnier reported. However, when the ambassadors asked for details, the Frenchman became tight-lipped. He asked for sympathy, he said, but every detail that is now publicized makes it difficult to reach an agreement. In the end, the diplomats gave him the green light to go on with the British.
They talk again, after all
So they talk to each other again, after all. That's good news. On Friday and Saturday, the EU and Britain want to enter a "phase of more intensive talks". What exactly that means and whether an agreement can even succeed even before the EU summit next Thursday is completely open. On the other hand, the fact that leading EU diplomats are no longer indignant about this possibility is quite a sensation this Friday. "I do not want to talk about euphoria," says one of them, "but it's clear that things have moved a lot on the British side."
Especially for the two core problems, which seemed unsolvable at the beginning of the week, there are now apparently new ideas on the table:
The border between Ireland and Northern Ireland could possibly be kept open following Brexit by means of a customs partnership. In any case, Barnier has not revealed details, but it is clear that the future customs border should not run between Northern Ireland and Ireland, but in the Irish Sea, ie between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. It is conceivable, say diplomats, that it was a construct that had been brought into play by then-British Prime Minister Theresa May in 2018.
Thus, British authorities would control and clear customs goods destined for the EU, as it were, for the EU before they reach Northern Ireland. If necessary, Northern Ireland companies could receive discounts on EU taxes as Northern Ireland would remain officially in the United Kingdom customs territory – fulfilling one of London's important requirements. The EU would have achieved its objective of preventing customs controls on the Irish island.
Sounds complicated? It is.
Sounds complicated? So it is, so in the past this idea was quickly rejected. Even now no one wants to bet on whether and when there is a breakthrough in the customs issue.
The question as to how far the Northern Irish may have a say in this tariff regulation seems to be simpler. London wanted to give the Northern Ireland Regional Government and Parliament the right to pre-approve the customs agreement and then to vote again every four years. The EU feared that this would give the unionist Northern Irish party DUP a veto right. This is now off the table, according to diplomats, but there should be some co-determination of the Northern Irish parliament. How exactly that looks is open.
No TV pictures for Johnson
Ideally, there might be more clarity at the beginning of next week and a meeting of EU ambassadors on the weekend will not be ruled out. The Brexit steering group in the European Parliament is also to be informed on Sunday evening in a telephone conversation about possible progress. Then you will probably also know what French President Emmanuel Macron and Chancellor Angela Merkel think of the matter, both meet on Sunday in Paris.
It is also clear that there will be no negotiations with Johnson at the EU summit itself. If the British Prime Minister had hoped for the beautiful television images of disheveled heads of government, who say their statements in the cameras after a night of negotiations, he was wrong. The Brexit treaty, as you can see in Brussels, is too important to finish between the tug of war.
Not everybody in Brussels likes the positive mood, because at the beginning of the week it did not seem like the Brexit drama would end well. Instead, both sides seemed to have begun to blame each other for failing. From London came threats of sabotage of the EU, if one is forced to another Brexit postponement. The low point was reached when the British government poked details from a confidential phone call between Johnson and Angela Merkel to the local press – and probably also distorted the words of the Chancellor.
But on Thursday afternoon suddenly everything was different. For a full three hours, the heads of government of Ireland and the United Kingdom, Varadkar and Johnson, had talked with each other most of the time in private. Subsequently, even notoriously skeptical EU diplomats were in good spirits. It moves something, it was said. The Irish and the British had clearly come closer in the two central issues.
Time is practically used up
However, there are also warning voices. British Education Minister Gavin Williamson said Friday that the EU must move and that the British government would otherwise suspend negotiations.
The French European Minister Amelie de Montchalin promptly repudiated the demand: Britain must be more willing to compromise, otherwise a no-deal Brexit is likely.
Speaking of "promising signals", EU Council President Donald Tusk warned that time was "practically exhausted" and there was no guarantee of success.
Above all, however, the EU's mistrust of Johnson is deep. In Brussels, one trusts the British prime minister almost everything – even that his current charm offensive is nothing more than a new feint: Johnson, so goes the theory, may want to drag the EU into hectic last-minute negotiations, only to then burst to leave Brussels to blame. At home, he could portray himself as a victim of the EU and prisoner of the British Parliament, forcing him to delay Brexit – and win the new elections.
However, he could also achieve this goal more easily with an agreement with the EU and an orderly Brexit on 31 October.