With two weeks to go until the 31 October deadline, Brexit may well continue into next year even if Boris Johnson agrees to a new deal with the EU negotiators, UK media reports suggest.
Talks are currently underway on a mix of Theresa May’s proposals and Boris Johnson’s mooted customs arrangement, which, in its initial version, would see Northern Ireland partially tied to the EU’s customs union following Brexit, with customs checks carried out away from the border to avoid the necessity of physical facilities between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
According to yet-unconfirmed reports in the UK, Britain’s prime minister had conceded to EU demands for a customs border "in the Irish Sea" – largely driven by the rush to find a deal for EU leaders to approve at a Thursday summit – so an agreement could be tabled today.
However, even if a political agreement is reached in principle, it could take months – and perhaps a third Brexit extension – to sort out the technicalities.
The Times quotes an unnamed senior German official as saying that the political agreement would not be enough “to resolve technical issues” that would require Brexit to be delayed for “some two months.”
A senior EU diplomatic official has told the newspaper that “without a deal this week, Britain will need an extension. With a deal this week, Britain will need an extension.”
French President Macron reportedly raised the possibility of a “technical extension” to iron out the details of a Brexit agreement during a phone call with Johnson yesterday; it is yet unclear what Johnson’s response was.
Bit more on Macron/Johnson call - understand France is reluctant to have another delay but the President raised possibility of technical extension— Laura Kuenssberg (@bbclaurak) October 15, 2019
The prime minister has repeatedly promised not to seek such an extension and said he would take Britain out of the European Union whether or not he has a deal at hand. His hands, however, are tied by a law forcing him to ask for a Brexit delay if he doesn’t have a deal by Saturday, 19 October.
Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, the Irish prime minister, Leo Varadkar, said there might be no need for an extension if an agreement makes its way to Thursday’s European Council summit, is green-lighted there, and agreed upon by the MPs in Westminster on Saturday.
Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement has been voted down three times over the issue of Northern Ireland, forcing her twice to change the date the UK is due to leave. This time, any concessions on the part of Boris Johnson will likely face opposition from the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), his allies in Westminster who, if they defect to the opposition, may block the current agreement as well.
DUP leader Arlene Foster said on Tuesday that the speculation about Johnson’s concessions was “so far off the mark that you cannot even see the mark anymore”.
She said: “I think what’s important is that we stick with our principles, that we want to get a deal but that it has to be a deal that respects the economic and constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom and that means all of the United Kingdom – Northern Ireland included, and that’s very important for us.”
It will be announced later in the day whether Britain and the EU have reached agreement. If there is no progress, the negotiations will have to continue into next week.