The EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier has received the green light from the 27 member states to go into intensive negotiations with the UK this weekend.
The announcement that so called “tunnel” negotiations will proceed followed a meeting between Mr Barnier and the UK’s Brexit secretary Steve Barclay on Friday. “Tunnel” negotiations are intense talks which are limited to the negotiators with minimal feedback externally in a bid to allow the talks proceed unhampered by leaks.
“It’s a tunnel with a very small light at the end of it,” one diplomat said on Friday , indicating there was not too much hope on the EU side that a deal could be sealed before Britain is due to leave the EU on Octover 31st.
UK prime minister Boris Johnson was also cautious, telling reporters on Friday that he could see a pathway to a deal after his meeting with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar "but that doesn't mean it's a done deal".
“There’s a way to go. It’s important now that our negotiators on both sides get into proper talks about how to sort this thing out,” he said. “And, you know, if they can’t then we have to be ready, as this country is and will be, to come out with no-deal if we absolutely have to.”
DUP leader Arlene Foster, whose party is firmly opposed to the backstop insurance policy included in the withdrawal agreement reached between the EU and Mr Johnson's predecessor Theresa May, on Friday reiterated her concerns about Northern Ireland being treated differently to the rest of the UK.
"The DUP has always indicated that the United Kingdom must leave the EU as one nation and in so doing that no barriers to trade are erected within the UK."
Mr Johnson’s latest plan appears to envisage an all-Ireland regulatory zone for all goods, meaning that Northern Ireland would effectively remain in the European single market. He wants those arrangements to be subject to the consent of the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly, which would have to approve them in advance and renew that endorsement every four years.
In a statement on Friday, the European Commission said “The EU and the UK had agreed to intensify discussions over the coming days.
“The EU’s position remains the same: there must be a legally operative solution in the Withdrawal Agreement that avoids a hard border on the island of Ireland, protects the all-island economy and the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement in all its dimensions, and safeguards the integrity of the Single Market,” it said.
"The Commission will take stock with the European Parliament and Member States again on Monday in view of preparing the General Affairs Council (Article 50) on Tuesday morning."
The pound has rallied more than 3 per cent since Mr Varadkar and Mr Johnson's meeting on Thursday, its biggest two-day gain since before the British public voted to leave the EU in June 2016. On Friday, it surged by more than 2 per cent to a 3½ month high.
European Council president Donald Tusk said he now felt slightly more hopeful that the EU and UK will reach a deal.
“Today the hope is maybe a little bit bigger and more tangible than two or three days ago, you can never be sure in politics, sometimes the positive signs are only political tricks,” Mr Tusk told journalists on the sideline of a conference.
“I’m not sure, we’ve had so many bad experiences with our partners during the whole Brexit process but if it is true that the meeting between Prime Minister Varadkar and Prime Minister Johnson brought something more concrete and workable for all of us, then the chance is still in our hand.”
Mr Varadkar had earlier said he expected the UK government to table more detailed proposals to break the Brexit impasse after Mr Barclay's meeting with Mr Barnier in Brussels on Friday.
Speaking in Dublin, the Taoiseach said: “I think at this stage, probably the less said the better. The focus today very much switches to Brussels where Mr Barclay will meet with Michel Barnier and I would anticipate that would lead to some more detailed proposals being laid down and then the possibility for talks to enter the proverbial tunnel.”
Mr Vardkar and Mr Johnson said yesterday it was in “everybody’s interest” to get an agreement which would allow the UK to leave with a deal.
The softer mood music after Mr Johnson’s meeting with the Taoiseach follows an intensive few days which saw an acrimonious war of words explode between London, Dublin and Brussels in which the talks appeared close to collapse.
Briefings by anonymous Downing Street sources had accused Mr Varadkar of backtracking on previous commitments to try to find a deal, and of refusing to negotiate. And following a heated telephone call between Mr Johnson and German chancellor Angela Merkel on Tuesday, Number 10 sources claimed the EU was making it "essentially impossible" for Britain to leave with a deal.
Many MPs believe if he cannot get a deal, Mr Johnson will use the occasion to push for a “people versus parliament” general election, possibly as early as next month.
If a deal did emerge, Mr Johnson would also need the backing of the DUP and eurosceptic Tories to have any chance of getting it through without opposition support. – Additional reporting: PA