Britain’s efforts to agree an amicable divorce from the European Union were hanging by a thread Thursday as leaders headed to Brussels for the latest crunch summit.
EU and UK negotiators had worked late into the night on a compromise withdrawal deal that Prime Minister Boris Johnson hoped to present to his counterparts.
But, as dawn broke over Brussels, Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party dramatically rejected the accord, which would see their British-ruled province remain under EU customs and Value Added Tax rules.
It was not immediately clear if this meant that Johnson’s British government would also have to back away from the draft text, but it greatly complicates his chances of getting it though parliament.
And EU leaders will be loath to approve another withdrawal agreement only to see it rejected in London, as happened with the last Brexit deal.
“As things stand, we could not support what is being suggested on customs and consent issues, and there is a lack of clarity on VAT,” the DUP said.
“We will continue to work with the Government to try and get a sensible deal that works for Northern Ireland and protects the economic and constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom.”
In Brussels, EU officials were expecting more contacts with British representatives in the morning before Johnson and the other 27 EU leaders arrive in the early afternoon for the two-day European Council summit.
Before the DUP statement there had been guarded optimism that this time, just two weeks before Britain is due to quit the bloc, the groundwork was there for a deal to avoid calamitous economic disruption.
“An agreement appears within reach but it is not guaranteed,” French deputy foreign minister Jean-Baptiste Lemoyne said. “We’re hoping for a deal and if it can come in the coming hours, that would be perfect.”
Under the measures to replace the so-called “Irish backstop” in the previous failed agreement, the plan would see Northern Ireland remain British legal territory but trade under EU regulations.
This is intended to prevent the return of a hard border with EU-member Ireland but, because it would involve some customs and tax checks with the rest of the UK it raised the hackles of the pro-British DUP.
EU negotiator Michel Barnier said late Wednesday that there had been “good progress, and work is ongoing” as he briefed a late-night gathering of leading MEPs on the eve of the summit.
But one EU source told media that the putative agreement “is politically fragile in London” because of Johnson’s reliance on votes from the DUP and hardline Conservative eurosceptics.
And there was scepticism that a final legal text could be completed before the end of the summit, although leaders may give political approval to open the way for a binding agreement to be finalised in the weeks to come.
The leaders also hope the summit will rise above the Brexit mire and focus on the EU budget debate, bids by North Macedonia and Albania to start talks to join the bloc, and the crisis in relations with Turkey.
The Brexit issue is notionally first on the agenda, but could be delayed to Friday if the deal’s text needs more work.
Johnson has promised to take the UK out of the European Union on October 31, with or without a divorce agreement to maintain orderly economic ties with its former partners.
A British government audit, published Wednesday, added weight to fears of a economic breakdown in the event of a “no deal” exit, forecasting a 45-65 percent cut in cross-Channel trade for up to a year.
Against this background, Britain’s Brexit Minister Stephen Barclay insisted: “We’re committed to leaving… on October 31. We think the best way of doing that is with a deal, to leave in a smooth and orderly way.”
More intense talks resumed this week after Britain softened its stance on the customs status of Northern Ireland in order to clinch an accord before the summit.