Just one day before the European Summit, Brexit negotiators have managed to minimize outstanding issues. However, a final agreement could not yet be reached in Brussels.
"We keep working, we keep working," said Brexit chief negotiator Michel Barnier as he left the interview with the EU ambassadors on Wednesday evening at around 9pm. His next stop was the Brexit experts in the European Parliament, with whom he still advised around 22 o'clock. "He thinks he can do it," says one participant in the round.
Earlier, Barnier had told the ambassadors that the problems were largely solved, were still open questions of future sales or VAT regulations for Northern Ireland. EU VAT rules should continue to apply in Northern Ireland, which is important for trading on the island, but needs to be aligned with the British, who have their own rules.
Tax questions are of course no small matter, especially not at Brexit. No matter, it should go on. "The goal is to finish the thing now," says a diplomat familiar with the negotiations on Wednesday evening.
Virginia Mayo / AP
Michel Barnier: It's just negotiated again
That's what EU Council President Donald Tusk thinks, too. "The foundation for this agreement is ready and theoretically we could approve the contract tomorrow," he said. "The news from Brussels could be worse," said Chancellor Angela Merkel at a press conference with French President Emmanuel Macron.
Time and again the old question: Does Johnson get away with the deal at home?
EU diplomats stressed, however, that there is still no agreement from British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on the current outcome of the negotiations. Moreover, there is still no reliable contract text, it is said. However, many EU Member States want to see exactly this before they approve the changed form of the exit agreement at the EU summit on Thursday and Friday in Brussels.
2:00 pm, 5:00 pm, 7:00 pm – Brexit chief negotiator Barnier has repeatedly postponed the briefing of EU ambassadors. Sure, it's a good sign that both sides are talking. The idea of creating a solution to the difficult Northern Irish question seems to work.
On the other hand, the shifts hinted at an old problem – once again the question was whether the British would get enough support for the deal in their homeland.
May an existing contract clause be used again?
The idea of the Customs Partnership is complicated, but has the advantage that Northern Ireland could remain in a customs union with the United Kingdom, a core requirement of the Brexiter. Now, following Brexit and the end of the transitional period, the British are to levy customs duties on goods from third countries entering the EU via Northern Ireland, either on the Irish Sea or on the British mainland. As far as product and consumer protection standards are concerned, Northern Ireland, on the other hand, remains in the EU internal market, an important EU demand.
In video: "There are still chances for a deal"
The problem: This solution is difficult to implement. Therefore, it has already been rejected in the past. But in Brexit there is nothing that one has not already seen, such an EU diplomat – that now also applies to the possible solution of the drama.
Difficult in the last few meters was apparently still the question of whether the negotiators were allowed to fall back on an existing legal text on the Customs Partnership, which dates from February 2018, or whether the clause should be set up again. In the second case, the EU negotiators apparently feared that the conclusion of a basic agreement would hardly have been possible until the summit. Large parts of the previous exit agreement thus remained unchanged – for example, as far as civil rights, the exit calculation or the transition phase are concerned.
A new player is emerging on the doorstep of Europe
The issue of the future relationship, that is, the non-binding political declaration attached to the Brexit Agreement, has always been a problem. Unlike in the past, the British under Johnson no longer seek the greatest possible economic proximity to the EU. However, if the British do not want to abide by environmental, labor and consumer protection standards that are similar to those of the EU, they can not expect to gain access to the EU single market in return.
Chancellor Merkel at least prepares the German economy for the new competitor. "Britain will become another competitor on the doorstep of Europe," she said Tuesday at the German Engineering Summit.
The crucial problem, however, lies elsewhere in these hours – in London. Or, again, with the Northern Irish miniature party DUP, which plays a key role in Westminister. Its chairman Arlene Foster announced ahead of the looming compromise between London and Brussels already on Tuesday a rejection. Such a construct could not accept their party, said Foster. "Because we could not have a say in these tariffs and how they came about."
Henry Nicholls / REUTERS
Arlene Foster: Clear rejection from Northern Ireland
On Wednesday, the DUP remained reluctant. British media reports that DUP had given up their resistance, Foster said in the afternoon on Twitter promptly as "nonsense". You need a "reasonable contract" that could support both nationalists and unionists in Ireland.
The question of whether the DUP gives its plazet depends, despite the manageable size of the party much. If it rejects a deal between the UK government and the EU Commission, observers believe it likely that a significant portion of the Brexit hardliners will follow from Johnson's Tory party.
That was not without effect for the negotiations in Brussels. In the late afternoon, a Johnson spokesman confirmed that talks with the DUP were still ongoing.
The idea already existed – and it did not turn out well at the time
Surprisingly the resistance of the DUP did not come at all. Because the proposal that is on the table is basically not new, but a revenge of the customs partnership that former Prime Minister Theresa May had once proposed. Only that this should now be limited to Northern Ireland, which would lead to a customs border on the Irish Sea. The EU Commission had already suggested this once before – and got to hear from May that no British Prime Minister would ever agree.
That Johnson is apparently considering this now does not please everyone in his Tory party. Former Northern Ireland Minister Owen Paterson described the plan in the newspaper "The Sun" as "absurd".
Representatives of the EU states, meanwhile, remained largely unclear, both in terms of the details of a possible agreement and the chances of success. "We are currently experiencing nothing," said a senior member of a Member State late Wednesday morning. "I do not know where we are," said another diplomat. "I just do not know."
One thing is for sure after this Wednesday in Brussels – Thursday will be exciting.