Brexit Secretary meets EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier for crunch talks

11 October 2019, 09:44 | Updated: 25 October 2019, 10:50

Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay (left) is meeting Michel Barnier on Friday
Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay (left) is meeting Michel Barnier on Friday. Picture: PA

By Megan White

Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay is meeting EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier for crunch talks as hopes were raised of the possibility of securing a withdrawal deal with 20 days to go until the deadline.

The pair met in Brussels on Friday after promising talks between Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar led them to declare they could "see a pathway" to a possible agreement.

Today’s talks could paint a better picture of whether relations between London and the EU have thawed after a week of abrupt exchanges.

They could lead to the start of intensive "tunnel" negotiations ahead of a key EU heads of government summit next week.

The pair have met in Brussels on Friday
The pair have met in Brussels on Friday. Picture: PA

The unexpectedly cordial atmosphere of the meeting between the two prime ministers led to speculation of a possible compromise on the contentious issue of the Northern Ireland border backstop.

After more than two hours of "detailed and constructive" discussions at a country manor on the Wirral on Thursday, the two leaders said it was in "everybody's interest" to get an agreement which would allow the UK to leave with a deal.

Mr Varadkar said he hoped the progress they had made would be "sufficient" to enable intensive negotiations to resume in Brussels ahead of next week's crucial EU summit.

The Taoiseach said: "I think it is possible for us to come to an agreement, to have a treaty to allow the UK to leave the EU in an orderly fashion, and to have that done by the end of October, but there's many a slip between cup and lip," he said.

Boris Johnson (right) met Leo Varadkar on Thursday
Boris Johnson (right) met Leo Varadkar on Thursday. Picture: PA

"In terms of how long it will take, I can't predict that with any certainty, but I think all sides would like there to be an agreement next week at the council if possible.

"Obviously there's a further deadline after that which is October 31, so I would say a short pathway rather than a long one, but it's impossible to predict that for sure."

Mr Varadkar refused to be drawn on any "concessions" made by either side, while UK Government sources refused to be drawn on Irish press reports suggesting "significant movement" by the UK.

Sterling rose sharply on international money markets in the wake of the talks.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said that the Cabinet had been briefed on the meeting, but would not explain what concessions may have prompted the surprise optimism.

The softer mood after Mr Johnson's meeting with the Taoiseach followed an intensive few days which saw an acrimonious war of words explode between London, Dublin and Brussels in which the talks appeared close to collapse.

Without a deal, Mr Johnson will face demands from opposition parties to comply with the so-called Benn Act which would require him to request a three-month Brexit delay if there is no agreement by October 19.

The PM has said while he will abide by the law, he is determined to leave on the Halloween deadline of October 31 come what may.

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