Downing Street believes there has been a shift in the European Union’s willingness to negotiate on the Brexit agreement, which Boris Johnson is expected to press with EU leaders, though optimism in No 10 could be scuppered by a new Irish push to reinforce the importance of the backstop.
The prime minister is expected to speak to the European commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, later on Tuesday, which a Downing Street source said would be used to reinforce the willingness to engage which Johnson believes he has achieved from meetings with EU leaders. “The mandate to start negotiations will have come from there,” the source said.
It is understood that No 10 now believes there has been a “rhetorical shift” from the EU compared with a month ago when the backstop and withdrawal agreement were considered sacrosanct.
A senior source said they were unsure if the shift was substantive but said the openness had to be used to “prise open some space” for negotiations.
Johnson will send his chief Brexit adviser, David Frost, to Brussels on Wednesday to continue discussions on alternatives to the backstop with senior EU officials, though No 10 played down the prospect of Frost presenting a concrete proposal for the reopening of negotiations.
Johnson is expected to meet Ireland’s taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, in Dublin early next week, a meeting which a Downing Street source described as “clearly crucial”.
Ireland’s deputy prime minister, Simon Coveney, started a five-city Brexit tour of EU capitals on Tuesday to reinforce the importance of the backstop and Good Friday agreement for Ireland’s economic and social stability.
Coveney’s EU offensive on the backstop would appear to counter some claims that the EU is showing new signs of flexibility on the measure after Johnson’s first appearance at a G7 summit in Biarritz at the weekend.
Speaking in Dublin before the trip and before a meeting with his Norwegian counterpart on Monday night, Coveney spoke of a diplomatic outreach programme to help other nations understand the “unique” impact of Brexit on the island of Ireland.
He also spoke of “the complex constitutional arrangements in Northern Ireland, the experiences of border communities in the past, and the interwoven nature of relationships on the island [that] can be best understood by a visit to the area”.
Coveney is expected to repeat this message in Prague on Tuesday, in Paris on Wednesday, in Helsinki on Thursday and Friday, and in Warsaw on Sunday.
Last week in Dublin, Coveney said it was not the case that the Irish government was refusing to talk to the UK, but said he would not be facilitating the UK in walking away from commitments in the withdrawal agreement.
Johnson also spoke to the Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte, by phone on Tuesday.
Rutte said he told Johnson that the EU27 was “open to concrete proposals compatible with the withdrawal agreement: respect for the integrity of the single market and no hard border on the Irish isle”.
A Downing Street spokeswoman said there had been “good discussions with EU leaders both last week in France and in Germany, and at the weekend”.
The spokeswoman said Johnson believed there was now a “clear understanding” of the seriousness of the UK’s commitment to leave on 31 October.
“He has also been setting out very clearly the reasons why the backstop is unacceptable to us,” the spokeswoman said. “What is clear is that if there is goodwill on both sides, and a determination to get things done, solutions to the backstop exist and the PM believes they should be discussed.”
Frost is expected to meet officials from the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier’s taskforce as well as officials from the office of Donald Tusk, the president of the European council.
“The discussions at sherpa level have been going on for a number of weeks now and those will continue this week, both in relation to the visit to Brussels and in the prime minister’s own conversations with leaders which will carry on this week,” a No 10 spokeswoman said.
Securing changes to the backstop may not be enough to convince some of the Conservative hard Brexiters, though Downing Street has effectively ruled out any other changes.
Iain Duncan Smith, who chaired Johnson’s leadership campaign, wrote in the Telegraph on Tuesday that “simply ditching the backstop isn’t enough” and said there were also concerns over the transition period and cooperation on defence and security.
Asked whether Johnson was willing to accept the existing withdrawal agreement if the backstop is removed, the Downing Street spokeswoman said: “We have been clear the changes we are seeking are to the backstop.”