There is usually at least one place where Michel Barnier, the EU's Brexit chief negotiator, talks relatively openly – meeting the EU ambassadors of the 27 member states. After all, if he negotiates with the British, then it is done on behalf of the member states. And if he closes a deal, then their heads of state and government must agree.
On Thursday afternoon, however, the tall Frenchman is buttoned up even in this elite circle. Sure, Barnier told the ambassadors what the British offer looks like in order to reach a withdrawal agreement by the end of the month. Barnier had just scurried from breakfast with British Brexit minister Stephen Barclay into the council building. Barcley, in turn, had provided his colleague with news of Boris Johnson's meeting with Ireland's premier Leo Varadkar on Thursday.
There is progress, Barnier reported. However, when the ambassadors asked for details, the Frenchman became tight-lipped. He asked for sympathy, he said, but every detail that is now publicized makes it difficult to reach an agreement. In the end, the diplomats gave him the green light to continue with the British.
They talk again, after all
So you talk to each other again, after all. That's good news. On Friday and Saturday, the EU and Britain want to enter a "phase of more intensive talks". What exactly that means and whether an agreement can even succeed even before the EU summit next Thursday is completely open. On the other hand, the fact that leading EU diplomats are no longer indignant about this possibility is quite a sensation this Friday. "I do not want to talk about euphoria," says one of them, "but it's clear that things have moved a lot on the British side."
Especially for the two core problems, which were still unsolvable at the beginning of the week, new ideas seem to be on the table:
The border between Ireland and Northern Ireland could possibly be kept open after Brexit with the help of a customs partnership. In any case, Barnier has not revealed details, but it is clear that the future customs border should not run between Northern Ireland and Ireland, but in the Irish Sea, ie between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. It is conceivable, diplomats say, is a construct that brought the then British Prime Minister Theresa May already in 2018 into play.
According to this, British authorities would control and clear goods destined for the EU for the EU before they reach Northern Ireland. If necessary, Northern Ireland companies could receive discounts on EU taxes as Northern Ireland would remain officially in the United Kingdom customs territory – fulfilling one of London's important requirements. The EU, in turn, would have achieved its objective of preventing customs controls on the Irish island.
Sounds complicated? Is it too.
Sounds complicated? So it is, so in the past this idea was quickly rejected. Even now no one wants to bet on whether and when there is a breakthrough in the customs issue.
There seems to be a simpler question about the extent to which the Northern Irish may have a say in this customs regulation. London wanted to give the Northern Ireland Regional Government and Parliament the right to pre-approve the customs agreement and then to vote again every four years. The EU feared that this would give the unionist Northern Irish party DUP a veto right. This is now off the table, according to diplomats, but there should be some co-determination of the Northern Irish parliament. How exactly that looks is open.
No TV Pictures for Johnson
Ideally, there could be more clarity at the beginning of next week, and a meeting of EU ambassadors on the weekend will not be ruled out. The Brexit steering group in the European Parliament is also to be informed on Sunday evening in a telephone conversation about possible progress. Then you will probably also know what French President Emmanuel Macron and Chancellor Angela Merkel think of the matter, both meet in Paris on Sunday.
It is also clear that there will be no negotiations with Johnson at the EU summit itself. If the British Prime Minister had hoped for the beautiful television images of disheveled heads of government, who say their statements in the cameras after a night of negotiations, he was wrong. The Brexit Treaty, as you can see in Brussels, is too important to be completed between the tug of war.
Not everyone in Brussels still likes the positive mood, as it did not go out at the beginning of the week as if the Brexit drama was coming to a happy end. Instead, both sides seemed to have begun to blame each other for failing. From London came threats of sabotage of the EU, if one is forced to another Brexit postponement. The low point was reached when the British government pierced details from a confidential phone call between Johnson and Angela Merkel to the local press – and probably also distorted the words of the Chancellor.
But on Thursday afternoon suddenly everything was different. For a full three hours, the heads of government of Ireland and the United Kingdom, Varadkar and Johnson, had talked with each other most of the time in private. Subsequently, even notoriously skeptical EU diplomats were in good spirits. It moves something, it was said. The Irish and the British had clearly come closer in the two central issues.
Time is practically exhausted
However, there are also warning voices. British Education Minister Gavin Williamson said Friday that the EU must move and that the British government might otherwise end the negotiations.
The French Minister for Europe, Amelie de Montchalin, promptly withdrew the demand: Britain had to be more willing to compromise, otherwise a no-deal Brexit would be likely.
EU Council President Donald Tusk spoke of "promising signals," but warned that time was "virtually exhausted" and that there was no guarantee of success.
Above all, however, the EU's mistrust of Johnson is deep. In Brussels, one trusts the British prime minister almost everything – even that his current charm offensive is nothing more than a new feint: Johnson, so goes the theory, may want to drag the EU into hectic last-minute negotiations, only to burst then to leave Brussels to blame. At home, he could portray himself as a victim of the EU and prisoner of the British Parliament, forcing him to delay Brexit – and win the new elections.
However, he could achieve that goal more easily with an agreement with the EU and an orderly Brexit on 31 October.