BRUSSELS — British and European Brexit negotiators talked into the early morning hours Wednesday to try to finalize a deal to split Britain from the European Union, as diplomats and officials said they could be closing in on a last-minute agreement.

With talks passing a midnight deadline imposed by the chief E.U. Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, Britain appeared willing to make concessions, according to diplomats familiar with the discussions.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has staked his political future on leading his country out by Oct. 31 — or at least on being seen to have tried his utmost.

But even though policymakers on both sides seemed more optimistic than they had in months that a deal might be imminent, it was far from clear whether it will actually happen. Not only does Johnson first have to strike a bargain with the European Union — itself a difficult task — he then must sell it at home. British domestic politics can be unforgiving, as Johnson’s predecessor Theresa May learned after making a deal with Brussels only to have it defeated three times in Parliament.

AD
AD

The key sticking point in the closed-door talks in Brussels was the future of Northern Ireland, which will depart the E.U. along with the rest of the United Kingdom. Both the U.K. and the E.U. say they want to keep open the border with the Republic of Ireland, to preserve the hard-won peace there. They have disagreed about how to achieve that, with the E.U. saying Northern Ireland would have to remain tightly aligned with its own rules.

May had said “no U.K. prime minister would ever agree to” a proposal that would create a customs border in the Irish Sea. And Johnson had resisted the idea. But on Tuesday, he seemed to be moving far closer to European demands in a bid to push the talks to a conclusion.

E.U. leaders will meet in Brussels Thursday and Friday, when they will either sign off on a deal, agree to delay the Brexit date beyond October or brace for a sudden and uncontrolled British departure from the bloc.

AD
AD

Barnier told reporters ahead of the marathon negotiations: “Even if the agreement will be difficult, more and more difficult, to be frank, it is still possible this week.”

One European diplomat involved in the negotiations said late Tuesday that “there is light in the tunnel, but for the moment it comes from only neon tubes, not from the exit.” The diplomat spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the closed-door talks.

The Irish border has proved to be one of the most vexing issues facing negotiators over the past three years. The promise of an open border is central to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which ended the Troubles, as the 30 years of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland are known. 

AD

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. Brexit could change all that. If the United Kingdom has its own set of tariffs and regulations, Europeans would demand a customs border to prevent smuggling and ensure the integrity of their own internal market.

AD

But both sides fear it could lead to violence.

While the sweeping, E.U. bureaucratic hub of the Berlaymont building in Brussels was busy with Brexit talks, so too was Johnson’s official residence at 10 Downing Street, where ministers and lawmakers dashed in and out all day Tuesday.

AD

By some counts, compared to May, Johnson would face an even tougher vote in the House of Commons. His Conservative Party no longer holds a majority, and opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn has warned that his Labour Party will not support Johnson’s “Tory Brexit,” no matter the details (though some Labour rebels have signaled they might just back a deal).

The most hard-line Brexiteers, known as the “Spartans,” may also rise up against any deal that crosses their red lines.

But there were signals that the Tories might rally behind their new prime minister. 

AD

Steve Baker, leader of the pro-Brexit European Research Group (ERG), left a meeting Tuesday at 10 Downing Street telling reporters outside that he was “optimistic that it is possible to reach a tolerable deal that I am able to vote for.” 

AD

The former leader of the ERG and now leader of the House of Commons, Jacob Rees-Mogg, pleaded with fellow Conservatives to trust Johnson because — unlike May — he is a true Brexiteer, a leader of the winning June 2016 campaign to leave the European Union.

Rees-Mogg said Parliament was desperate for a deal.

He was asked by Sky News over the weekend if he would vote for a deal similar to May’s customs partnership deal, which he once called “completely cretinous.”

Rees-Mogg conceded that he may have to “eat my words.” 

He added that “there’s a line from Churchill saying that he often had to eat his words and he found it to be a very nourishing diet, and that is something that happens in politics.”

AD
AD

Even tougher for Johnson and any deal he crafts are the 10 lawmakers from the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) from Northern Ireland, who have opposed any kind of Brexit deal that would see the Irish province treated differently than England, Wales and Scotland, their fellow nations in the U.K.

Arlene Foster, the DUP leader, visited Johnson again on Tuesday night, and before entering 10 Downing promised she would “do what’s best for the union.” 

Afterward, a DUP spokesman said: “It would be fair to indicate gaps remain and further work is required,” seemingly splashing a bit of cold water on hopes that a deal would be reached in the evening.

Booth reported from London. Quentin Ariès in Brussels and Karla Adam in London contributed to this report.

AD