By Elizabeth Piper and Peter Powell
THORNTON MANOR, England (Reuters) – Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his Irish counterpart Leo Varadkar said they saw a pathway to a possible Brexit deal after a last-ditch meeting aimed at paving a way for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union in an orderly way.
With just three weeks to go before the United Kingdom is due to leave the world’s biggest trading bloc, it is still unclear on what terms it will leave or indeed whether it will at all.
Ireland holds the key to any deal. It will have to consent to any solution to the hardest Brexit riddle of all: how to prevent the British province of Northern Ireland becoming a backdoor into the EU’s markets without having border controls.
The EU fears controls on the 500-km (300 mile) Irish border with Northern Ireland would undermine the 1998 Good Friday Agreement which ended three decades of sectarian and political conflict that killed over 3,600 people.
As both sides position for another delay followed by a British election, or an acrimonious divorce on Oct. 31, Johnson met Varadkar at Thornton Manor in Cheshire on Thursday.
“They agreed that they could see a pathway to a possible deal,” Johnson and Varadkar said in a joint statement. “Both continue to believe that a deal is in everybody’s interest.
“They agreed to reflect further on their discussions and that officials would continue to engage intensively on them,” they said.
Sterling rose as high as $1.2275 on their words.
EU diplomats, though, are skeptical about the chances of a deal. Most expect Johnson to be forced to accept a delay to Brexit – a step that could ultimately lead to either a disorderly exit or the reversal of the entire Brexit endeavor.
Although Johnson has insisted Britain that will leave the EU on Oct. 31 even if no agreement is reached, the British parliament has passed a law saying it cannot do so.
Brexit descended into a public row between London and Brussels this week after a Downing Street source said a Brexit deal was essentially impossible because German Chancellor Angela Merkel had made unacceptable demands.
Ireland is the biggest issue of disagreement.
The Irish border has been largely invisible since army checkpoints were taken down after the 1998 peace deal largely ended the violence between the region’s pro-British majority and an Irish nationalist minority.
Politicians have warned that the re-imposition of physical infrastructure on the border when it becomes the EU’s external frontier would anger Irish nationalists in Northern Ireland who aspire to unification with the Republic of Ireland, and help militants opposed to the peace deal to recruit new members.
To get around the problem, the EU agreed an insurance policy – known as the backstop – last November with Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May.
The Withdrawal Agreement that May struck says the United Kingdom will remain in a customs union “unless and until” alternative arrangements are found to avoid a hard border.
But Johnson said that was undemocratic, undermined the unity of the United Kingdom and would keep it trapped in the EU’s orbit for years to come.
He proposed an all-island regulatory zone to cover all goods. Northern Ireland would leave the EU’s customs area along with the rest of the United Kingdom and the province’s institutions would be able to opt to exit the regulatory zone – a step too far for Ireland and the EU.
Johnson and Varadkar said they had discussed consent and customs.
Though Ireland is only about an eighth of the size of the United Kingdom’s $2.8 trillion economy, Dublin is backed by the rest of the EU whose economy – minus the United Kingdom – is worth $15.9 trillion.
While Ireland would be very badly affected by a no-deal Brexit, the relative importance of Ireland in the negotiations up-ends centuries of history in which it has had a much weaker hand than London, both before and after winning independence from Britain.
The EU’s two most powerful leaders, Germany’s Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron, will meet at the Elysee Palace on Sunday ahead of next week’s summit.
“We want to reduce the negative effects, even if there is a disorderly Brexit, in both countries,” Merkel said.
Macron said on Thursday that Britain would have to pay the price should it decide to proceed with a position over Brexit that is unacceptable for the other 27 EU countries.
“If they don’t want to make any move or make something which is not accepted, they will have to take the responsibility,” he said.
(Additional reporting by |William James; Writing by Guy Faulconbridge; editing by Alistair Smout and Angus MacSwan)