Boris Johnson’s Brexit envoy arrives in Brussels for talks on Wednesday amid rising expectations in the EU that the beleaguered prime minister is preparing to shift his position in an attempt to broker a deal.
David Frost will be pressed in Brussels to give more details of the prime minister’s new softer line on the future of the Irish border, which lies at the heart of efforts to secure a new withdrawal agreement.
Some EU diplomats believe that Mr Johnson — who has been outmanoeuvred by MPs opposed to a no-deal Brexit and a snap election over the past week — now recognises that striking an agreement at a European leaders’ summit next month is probably the best way out of his predicament.
Mr Johnson has insisted on the UK leaving the EU with or without an agreement on October 31 since becoming prime minister, but Downing Street said on Tuesday the “priority” now was to avoid a no-deal Brexit.
He has a five-week window while the British parliament is suspended to start serious negotiations in Brussels.
The prime minister is under pressure from opposition MPs to abandon his Democratic Unionist party allies and push for a Brexit deal based on a previous EU offer for a so-called backstop arrangement covering Northern Ireland.
The backstop aims to prevent the return of a hard Irish border if no free trade agreement between the UK and the EU has been put in place at the end of a Brexit transition period.
Under the original EU plan, Northern Ireland would remain part of the bloc’s single market and customs area, removing the need for checks on trade with the Irish Republic.
However it would have created new checks on the Irish Sea on trade with mainland Britain and Mr Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, rejected that as “something no British prime minister could ever accept”.
She opted instead for a UK-wide backstop involving a “temporary” customs union with the EU but that was viewed by Eurosceptic Conservative MPs as a “trap” to keep Britain permanently tied to the bloc.
Mr Johnson is demanding this mechanism be removed from the withdrawal agreement, and the EU now stands ready to revive the Northern Ireland-only backstop.
Mr Johnson on Monday met Arlene Foster, DUP leader, and has told the unionist party he will not support a Northern Ireland-only backstop. Mrs Foster has called it “undemocratic and unconstitutional”.
But Mr Johnson has accepted that Northern Ireland could effectively remain part of the EU single market for agriculture and food — throwing up new checks on the Irish Sea — if the Stormont assembly was reconvened and gave its consent.
Some at Westminster believe the prime minister should simply sideline the DUP — whose 10 MPs have supported the Tory administration since 2017 — now that the party no longer provides him with a working majority in the House of Commons.
In a move that wiped out his majority, Mr Johnson sacked 21 Tory MPs last week after they combined with opposition parties to secure Commons approval for legislation to try to prevent a no-deal Brexit on October 31.
“The Tory party is no longer dependent on the DUP for its majority — it doesn’t have a majority,” said Nick Boles, a former Conservative MP, at the launch of a new cross-party group of parliamentarians seeking consensus on a new Brexit deal.
The MPs, including Liberal Democrat Norman Lamb, Conservative Rory Stewart and Labour’s Stephen Kinnock, claimed “up to” 50 MPs in the main opposition party — mostly in pro-Leave constituencies — were now prepared to back an agreement to leave the EU.
Mr Johnson would need to win the support of dozens of Labour MPs to secure parliamentary approval for a new Brexit deal if the DUP voted against the agreement because it contained a Northern Ireland-only backstop.
The key question in Brussels is whether the prime minister could execute a U-turn and start preparing the ground for such a mechanism — in spite of Number 10 denying it is an option.
Mr Johnson’s suggestion that the UK is willing to countenance an all-Ireland agrifood zone as an alternative to the backstop has prompted some EU diplomats to ask whether it would be possible to build up to a broader arrangement covering other sectors on the island.
Some point out that Mr Johnson has already shifted some way from his initial hardline approach to the Brexit negotiations with Brussels, suggesting further movement is possible.
“He started by saying he wouldn’t talk unless the EU binned the backstop . . . now he is signalling that some Irish solution may be possible,” said one EU diplomat.
“You can ask yourself, as some are, whether we are seeing steps towards a backstop limited to Northern Ireland. Everyone can look at Mr Johnson’s limited options and see that this may be the least bad one.”
Phil Hogan, Ireland’s EU commissioner who is set to take on the trade portfolio from November 1, told RTE News that there were signs of movement on both sides of the Brexit negotiations, noting that Mr Johnson was now willing to look at divergence of some rules and regulations between the island of Ireland and the UK.
Officials in Brussels said that to date they had yet to see concrete proposals from the UK — notably on Mr Johnson’s alternatives to the UK-wide Irish backstop — that would move matters forward.