Boris Johnson will this week launch his bid to secure a Brexit agreement, with allies admitting they could know “by the weekend” whether the EU is willing to engage with a detailed proposal to resolve the vexed Irish border issue or if Britain is heading for a no-deal departure.
Mr Johnson’s allies say they expect Britain to submit its formal proposals for a Brexit deal — in legal text — after the prime minister closes the Conservative party conference in Manchester.
“By the end of the week everyone will know whether a deal is possible,” said one ally. One cabinet minister said: “If the EU starts to leak and brief against us, that would be a very bad sign.”
Mr Johnson is pinning his hopes on Leo Varadkar, Irish prime minister, indicating to the EU that the British proposal could form the basis of a deal, addressing the key issue of avoiding the return of physical infrastructure on the border.
In non-papers — legally non-binding documents — sent to Brussels, the UK has proposed a system where customs checks on suspicious goods would be carried out inside the Republic of Ireland in clearing centres but avoid having similar outposts in Northern Ireland to avoid border infrastructure, an EU official briefed on the plans told the Financial Times.
The government wants to use GPS tracking to notify customs authorities of when goods are approaching the frontier and provide only physical examination if cargo fails digital risk assessments.
In Ireland the UK proposal is being seen as a rehash of the maximum-facilitation plans previously rejected by Brussels and Dublin and it is considered “unbelievable” such ideas were still being advanced at this late stage in the negotiation.
A senior Irish figure involved in Brexit planning said the UK proposal was “completely unacceptable” to Dublin.
“It’s doing what they said they would never do. Boris Johnson in Dublin a fortnight ago said they would never do this.”
The British prime minister’s allies say they do not expect other EU member states to abandon Ireland. “Nobody here is expecting Ireland to be thrown under the bus,” said one senior government official. “That’s obviously not going to happen.”
Mr Johnson has told colleagues that any deal must be able to satisfy both Mr Varadkar and the Democratic Unionist party. “Everyone has to hold hands and jump into the swimming pool together,” the prime minister has told friends.
The outline of the British proposal has become clearer in recent days. Mr Johnson will try to reduce the need for regulatory checks at the border by proposing that agriculture and food will be part of a single “all-Ireland” regulatory space.
Britain could go further by suggesting that manufactured goods should also be included, as long as “consent” is provided by a reconvened Stormont assembly in Belfast. The DUP has warned it would oppose any plan that imposed new border checks in the Irish Sea.
Extra time could be built into any deal to allow new technical arrangements for “behind-the-border” checks — based on intelligence and trusted trader schemes — by allowing a standstill transition period to run until the end of 2022.
However, the British proposal would still rely on Ireland and the rest of the EU accepting “alternative arrangements” to deal with the big outstanding issue of customs. The EU has rejected such ideas as unviable, untested or even non-existent.
Michel Barnier, EU chief negotiator, has told diplomats that “a substantial shift in the UK position is required to have productive talks”.
He has also warned Steve Barclay, Brexit secretary, of the EU’s serious doubts that the prime minister can get any deal through a fractured House of Commons, according to an official present in the meeting last Friday.
Mark Francois, a leading Eurosceptic MP, insisted his group of hardline Tories were willing to be flexible. “If there is some form of deal . . . then I and my colleagues will look at it and read it very carefully,” he said.
Patience is wearing thin on the EU side as negotiators wait for detailed proposals from the UK. One EU diplomat complained that Mr Johnson was pursuing a “kamikaze” approach by threatening the rest of the EU with no-deal and while leaving a revised offer so late in the day.
Officials insist that the EU remains willing to enter into discussions over any UK proposals that are finally tabled. But the current UK approach, which was to develop an alternative to the so-called backstop to avoid a hard Irish border, would be very difficult to achieve in the time left.
One EU diplomat said. “If . . . you want to start from zero and build something completely new that has never been tested, that’s going to be very difficult to achieve.”
Simon Coveney, Ireland’s deputy prime minister, said on Monday that British proposals to date had not come close to settling the matter, arguing that Mr Johnson and his team knew “only too well” what was required to secure a deal.
He said he was hopeful there would be a significant change from London this week and that it would produce serious and credible proposals that would form the basis for intense talks.
Additional reporting by Arthur Beesley in Dublin