Unionists have vowed to kill off any Brexit deal which keeps Northern Ireland in the EU’s customs union, amid fears that Boris Johnson is ready to make the province a “sacrificial lamb” to secure an agreement with Brussels.
The prime minister refused to confirm that Northern Ireland would be leaving the customs union, in his first public comments after the EU agreed to intensify talks ahead of next week’s make-or-break summit.
Mr Johnson didn’t comment on what compromises he had made to coax the EU into deepening talks over the coming weekend, stating only that “nothing that will damage the ability of the whole of the UK to take full advantage of Brexit”.
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Northern Irish unionists immediately pledged to kill any agreement that kept the territory in the EU’s customs union, with former Ulster Unionist Party MP Jim Nicholson warning that “Northern Ireland is being offered up by Boris Johnson as the sacrificial lamb to save Brexit”.
In a statement issued late on Friday, DUP leader Arlene Foster stressed 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”.
“We have been consistent in our opposition to the backstop, whether UK or NI only, and anything that traps Northern Ireland in the European Union, whether single market or customs union, as the rest of the United Kingdom leaves will not have our support,” she said, adding that her party “will judge any outcome reached by the prime minister against the criteria above”.
The DUP’s reaction to any agreement is likely to be crucial because it cannot be passed without their MPs’ votes, and because many Tory Brexiteers have in the past taken their lead from the Northern Irish party.
The next 48 hours is expected to be a crucial period for decisions on any deal, with a planned meeting of Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel in Paris and the preparations for next week’s summit entering their final stage. EU diplomats are treating the talks with caution, but were willing to move them to the next stage because of movement on the UK side.
Announcing the step-up in negotiations over the weekend, a spokesperson for the European Commission said “the EU’s position remains the same” and listed the EU’s red line – prompting questions about what exactly the prime minister had promised.
The agreement on Friday afternoon to intensify talks is a major boost for the prime minister’s hopes of getting a deal. EU officials confirmed at lunchtime that negotiations would be entering a “tunnel” – Brussels jargon for intense private negotiations where leaks are kept to a minimum.
The move followed a breakfast meeting between Brexit secretary Steve Barclay and EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier in the EU capital, which both sides described as “constructive”.
Despite the news, Donald Tusk, the European Council president, warned on Friday that current UK proposals were neither “workable” nor “realistic”.
The decision to enter a tunnel came after Mr Barnier briefed EU27 ambassadors on the results of morning’s talks. The diplomats, representing EU member states, agreed that signs of movement were promising enough to warrant the “tunnel”.
Taking stock around lunchtime, Michel Barnier told reporters: “Brexit is like climbing a mountain. We need vigilance, determination and patience.”
A European Commission spokesperson said: “The EU and UK have 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.”
The spokesperson added that Mr Barnier would check back in with member states and MEPs to update them on progress on Monday.
Speaking to broadcasters, Mr Johnson said “it would be wrong of me to give a running commentary on the negotiations”, adding: “Let negotiators get on with the job.”
“I had a good conversation with the Irish taoiseach Leo Varadkar yesterday and I think both of us can see a pathway to a deal, but that doesn’t mean it’s a done deal.”
The mood of talks swung towards last-minute optimism on Thursday after a meeting between Boris Johnson and Irish PM Leo Varadkar on Merseyside, where both sides spoke of a “pathway to a deal”.
Officials are being tight-lipped about the content of discussions and is not clear what it was that Mr Johnson and Mr Varadkar discussed that has raised hopes of a solution.
Only the day before the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier had savaged UK plans in a public point-by-point deconstruction.
Mr Barnier said the EU had three concerns with UK proposals: that they did not prevent a customs border on the island of Ireland, that they included a veto for the Northern Ireland Assembly, and that they were not actually legally operable or ready to go.
Speaking in Cyprus on Friday, European Council president Donald Tusk said: “Unfortunately, we are still in a situation in which the UK has not come forward with a workable, realistic proposal.
“A week ago I told PM Johnson that if there was no such proposal by today, I would announce publicly that there are no more chances – because of objective reasons – for a deal during the incoming European Council.
“However, yesterday when the Irish taoiseach and the UK prime minister met they both saw – for the first time – a pathway to a deal. I have received promising signals from the taoiseach that a deal is still possible.”
He added that “technical talks” were still taking place in Brussels but that there was “no guarantee of success and the time is practically up”.
The 28 EU leaders will meet in Brussels next Thursday and Friday for their regular European Council summit, where Brexit is expected to be discussed – including the possibility of any extension. Both sides are aiming to have a deal done by the meeting.