Addressing a group of Conservative lawmakers on Wednesday, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson compared the negotiations to climbing Mount Everest. Bim Afolami, a lawmaker at the meeting, said Johnson claimed they were close to the summit, but “it’s still shrouded in cloud. But we can see it and we will get there.”
According to people briefed on the talks, Johnson was willing to make a slew of concessions in the interest of fulfilling his promise to get Britain out of the European Union this month — and perhaps at any cost.
Not only does he have to strike a bargain that can get the approval of 27 other E.U. countries — itself a difficult task — but he then must sell it at home. British domestic politics can be unforgiving. Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, made a deal with Brussels only to have it defeated three times in Parliament.
As a light drizzle descended on Brussels late Wednesday, issues surrounding Northern Ireland appeared to have snagged both sides. E.U. diplomats were worried about tax issues along the border. London was having trouble winning over a key Northern Ireland political party whose support Johnson needs to pass the deal in the British Parliament.
“I want to believe an agreement is being finalized and that we will be able to endorse it tomorrow,” French President Emmanuel Macron, who has been tough on Britain in previous rounds of Brexit discussions, said at a joint news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel late Wednesday.
But they were running out of time. Before the two-day summit begins, representatives from each of the E.U.’s 27 remaining member states will want to digest any deal and make recommendations to their leaders. In Europe’s consultations, where not all leaders speak English, even translations sometimes need to be given time.
E.U. leaders also do not want to negotiate the technically complex agreements directly with Johnson at the summit, diplomats said, because such deals depend on complicated legal considerations.
European Council President Donald Tusk told a Polish broadcaster that the “basic foundations of an agreement are ready” and “theoretically [on Thursday] we could accept this deal with Great Britain.”
“Everything is going in the right direction,” Tusk said. “But you will have noticed yourselves that with Brexit, and above all with our British partners, anything is possible.”
There was furious wheeling and dealing at 10 Downing Street on Wednesday, with lawmakers coming and going.
All eyes were on the hard-line Brexiteers in Johnson’s Conservative Party and a group of 10 lawmakers from Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, whose support is crucial.
Steve Baker, the leader of the hard-line faction known as the European Research Group, said that “great progress” had been made but that his group “really must see the text” before backing the proposals.
The Northern Ireland lawmakers, too, were holding out. They have opposed any deal that would see them treated differently from England, Wales and Scotland — their fellow nations in the United Kingdom.
The key sticking point in the closed-door talks in Brussels has been what happens to the border between Northern Ireland, which will leave with the rest of the U.K., and the Republic of Ireland, which will remain a member of the E.U.
The border has proved to be one of the most vexing issues facing negotiators over the past three years.
Today, the boundary is mostly invisible. A driver whizzing between Belfast and Dublin is not required to stop for any customs check or security control. There are no tollbooths, no cameras, not even a signpost.
The promise of an open border was central to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which ended the Troubles, as the 30-year period of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland is known.
Both the U.K. and the E.U. say they want to keep the border open to preserve the hard-won peace. But they have disagreed about how to achieve that.
The bargain they discussed Wednesday appeared to place Northern Ireland in a U.K. customs zone but with E.U. trade rules.
But in a late-night meeting with chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier, E.U. ambassadors voiced concerns about potential differences in tax rates between Northern Ireland and the E.U., which they fear could lead to smuggling. They also worried about British plans to regulate businesses more loosely than in the E.U., which they said could make it harder to do a trade deal with London.
Even if the foundations of a deal are agreed upon this week, E.U. diplomats said Wednesday that an extension may be necessary to finalize the details. Several said they wanted to know that Britain’s House of Commons, which convenes Saturday, would back a deal.
“I cannot imagine leaders tomorrow being able to say anything more than: ‘Well, this doesn’t look too bad; let’s continue to work with the U.K. to finalize the details,’ ” a senior E.U. diplomat said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to explain E.U. negotiating positions. “How long does that take? I don’t know. What is the House of Commons going to do on Saturday? I think that’s the one we can least predict.”
Karla Adam in London and Quentin Ariès in Brussels contributed to this report.