British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his 27 counterparts from across the European Union were converging on Brussels on Thursday for a summit they hope will finally lay to rest the acrimony and frustration of a three-year divorce fight.
Yet even before dawn, Johnson already had to deal with a serious setback when his Northern Irish government allies said they would not back his compromise proposals. The prime minister needs all the support he can get to push any deal past a deeply divided parliament.
It only added to the high anxiety that reigned on Thursday morning, with the last outstanding issues of the divorce papers still unclear.
Technical negotiators again went into the night Wednesday to fine tune customs and sales tax regulations that will have to regulate trade in goods between the Northern Ireland and Ireland — where the U.K. and the EU share their only land border.
And they were set to continue right up to the summit’s mid-afternoon opening. If a deal is agreed on during the two-day summit, Johnson hopes to present it to Britain’s Parliament at a special sitting Saturday.
After months of gloom over the stalled Brexit process, European leaders have sounded upbeat this week. French President Emmanuel Macron said Wednesday that “I want to believe that a deal is being finalized,” while German Chancellor Angela Merkel said negotiations were “in the final stretch.”
Johnson — who took office in July vowing Britain would finally leave the EU on Oct. 31, come what may — was slightly more cautious. He likened Brexit to climbing Mount Everest, saying the summit was in sight, though still shrouded in cloud.
Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party added to those clouds early Thursday. DUP leader Arlene Foster and the party’s parliamentary chief Nigel Dodds said they “could not support what is being suggested on customs and consent issues,” referring to a say the Northern Irish authorities might have in future developments.
Both the customs and consent arrangements are key to guaranteeing an open border between the U.K.’s Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland — they main obstacle to a Brexit deal.
Foster and Dodds said they would continue to work with the U.K. government to get a “sensible” deal. The problem is that the closer Johnson aligns himself with the DUP, the further he removes himself from the EU, leaving him walking a political tightrope.
Brexit negotiations have been here before — seemingly closing in on a deal that is dashed at the last moment. But hopes have risen that this time may be different. Though with Britain’s Oct. 31 departure date looming and just hours to go before the EU summit, focus was on getting a broad political commitment, with the full legal details to be hammered out later. That could mean another EU summit on Brexit before the end of the month.
So far, all plans to keep an open and near-invisible border between the two have hit a brick wall of opposition from the DUP.