Whisper it softly, but the Brexit endgame has arrived.
Eighteen months after Brussels and London reopened talks on the contentious Northern Ireland protocol — and more than three years after Britain actually left the EU — panicked officials on both sides of the English Channel are frantically trying to manage expectations as reports of a technical-level deal between the two sides emerge.
“They’re still in calls with the EU, but it's literally just lawyers tidying up bits of text,” one senior British government official said Wednesday, in reference to the U.K. negotiating team. “We're done.”
Multiple reports suggest U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak now has a draft technical deal on his desk to consider, despite a wave of both official and unofficial denials from politicians and diplomats on all sides.
“I suspect it is more the technical shape of a deal than a deal per se,” said a second person close to the talks on the U.K. side, “which might be giving them wriggle room to deny it.”
Denials of an outright agreement were still coming thick and fast Wednesday night after the Times reported that London and Brussels had indeed reached a deal on the key customs and governance disputes that have dogged talks over the protocol. Crucially — and most contentiously — its front page story suggested the EU has given ground on the role its top court will play in resolving future disputes.
That followed earlier reporting late last week by Bloomberg News that technical-level solutions on customs, state aid and checks were indeed within touching distance.
Talks on smoothing the operation of the Northern Ireland protocol have been ongoing since the summer of 2021, with negotiators long targeting a deal this month, ahead of an expected visit to Ireland by U.S. President Joe Biden in April.
The protocol arrangement, agreed as part of the Brexit divorce deal, sees Northern Ireland continue to follow the EU’s customs union and single market rules, in an effort to avoid a politically-sensitive hard border with the neighboring Republic of Ireland, which remains an EU member state.
Yet Northern Ireland's unionist politicians have long objected to the protocol, with the Democratic Unionist Party boycotting power-sharing and arguing that checks on goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland effectively separate the region from the rest of the U.K. They’re backed by critics in Sunak’s governing Conservative Party who resent the Court of Justice of the European Union’s place in protocol governance.
Selling a deal to those domestic audiences represents an almighty political challenge for a prime minister already battling to keep his fractured party together.
Officially, both sides are sticking to the script and insisting that talks continue.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen told reporters Wednesday: "I’m very sorry, but I cannot give partial elements — because you never know in the very end how the package looks like.”
In Downing Street, Sunak's official spokesperson tried to steer journalists away from what he called "speculative" reporting.
“No deal has been agreed, there is still lots of work to do on all areas, with significant gaps remaining between the U.K. and EU positions," the spokesperson said. “Talks are ongoing on potential solutions including on goods.”
But the senior U.K. official quoted before said the message from No. 10 that negotiations are ongoing only applied at a political level.
They added: “It’s now up to politicians to decide ‘yay’ or ‘nay.’ Rishi could have further technical talks with Ursula von der Leyen and [EU Brexit point-man] Maroš Šefčovič and stuff like that, but officials are done. It’s plain as day.”
According to the second person close to the talks, Sunak has been receiving regular updates on the evolving technical shape of the deal.
“As far as I know, he hasn't given it the green light yet,” they said. “But it is all being quite ‘secret squirrel’ in the [U.K.] Cabinet Office. So I don’t think many people will be fully in the loop."
In Brussels and in London, EU diplomats were busy rubbishing reports of an imminent resolution, while acknowledging that information on the state of play is being kept tight. European ambassadors were briefed on Wednesday morning that a breakthrough is yet to be reached, and that the CJEU issue remains particularly tricky.
Even inside the U.K., claim and counter-claim were flying. Another British official close to the talks said it was “just wrong [that a deal] is close,” with “fundamental” issues outstanding “including making sure there isn't a border." They would not, the person added, “expect anything in the short term.”
One EU diplomat summed up the mood: “If somebody tells you they know what’s happening, they’re lying.”
In truth, a final agreement on Brexit has never looked so close.