Is a Brexit deal agreed before October 31st a realistic possibility? Technically talks between the UK and EU are ongoing – with Emmanuel Macron saying the EU will decide by the end of the week whether a Brexit deal is possible. Meanwhile, the weekend papers have been filled with op-eds from government ministers on the need for both Brussels and MPs to get behind Boris Johnson’s proposed Brexit deal.
However, while Johnson appears to have made some progress with the latter group (a mix of MPs from across the spectrum have suggested they could vote for the proposal), the mood music in Brussels is gloomy. The differences between the two sides remain great. Michel Barnier has said Boris Johnson’s government will have to bear responsibility for a no-deal Brexit – suggesting a deal will only be possible if the UK presents revised proposals.
Johnson has spent the weekend speaking with EU leaders and tomorrow his chief Brexit negotiator David Frost is due in Brussels. But there is little expectation that the two sides will enter ‘the tunnel’ – the round of intense technical negotiations when an agreement is near – anytime soon. Brussels take issue with Johnson’s proposal of a customs border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. No. 10 are not willing to budge on this – Johnson views Northern Ireland leaving the customs union (and remaining in the same customs territory as the rest of the United Kingdom) as key to any deal.
On Friday night, Johnson’s senior advisor Dominic Cummings told government aides that unless Brussels softened its opposition, they would be prepared to leave with no deal come 31 October. With a court case on Friday suggesting Johnson’s government would seek an extension if by law they had to, few in government believe either a Brexit deal or no deal is just weeks away. Instead, the most common scenario cited by ministers and MPs is that no deal can be agreed, a battle gets underway over an extension which is eventually requested and then an election follows. There is a sense in government that if the Tories came back with a majority, Johnson’s proposal could fare better among EU leaders. For the timebeing, however, the government is trying to show that it is doing everything in its power to agree a Brexit deal and take the UK out by 31 October.