“I had a very good meeting with the prime minister … very positive and very promising,” Varadkar said on Thursday. “I do see a pathway to an agreement in coming weeks.”
“I think it is possible for us to come to an agreement, to have a treaty agreed, 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 and lots of things that are not in my control,” he said.
Striking a positive tone at Liverpool airport, Varadkar said the main issues remain ensuring that any long-term agreement has the consent of the people of Northern Ireland and ensuring no customs border on the island of Ireland.
“What I would hope that what’s happened today would be sufficient to allow negotiations to resume in Brussels.”
In a joint statement, the two leaders said they “could see a pathway to a possible deal”.
When asked how long the “pathway” to a deal was, Varadkar said: “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 the 31st of October, so I would say a short pathway rather than a long one, but it’s impossible to predict that for sure.”
Raising hopes, rising stocks
London stocks finished a rollercoaster session on Thursday with gains as domestic companies rose following the meeting between Johnson and Varadkar on the Wirral in north-west England. The boost to markets piggy-backed a global rally over hopes of a US-China trade truce.
The FTSE 100 ended 0.3 percent higher, after flipping back and forth during the day on mixed signals over the state of affairs between Beijing and Washington, while the midcap index that has a greater UK exposure also rose by the same level.
However, a more than one percent surge in sterling on renewed prospects of a Brexit agreement kept a lid on gains for the blue-chip bourse, which earns a sizeable portion of its earnings in US dollars.
Guinness-makers Diageo, consumer goods giant Unilever and drugs giant AstraZeneca were among stocks hammered the most, causing the FTSE 100 to lag behind other major indexes.
Stocks vulnerable to a hit from Brexit, on the other hand, overpowered those losses. Lloyds topped the main board with a four percent leap, while Royal Bank of Scotland added three percent.
Mining heavyweights, which rely on China, the world’s top metals consumer, for a chunk of their profits, were the biggest sector-wise boost to the main bourse, climbing 2.5 percent – their most since early August.
Gains were triggered as hopes of a resolution to a painfully long trade war returned after US President Donald Trump said he would meet Chinese Vice Premier Liu He on Friday.
The final countdown?
There are just days remaining to secure a Brexit divorce deal before a major constitutional challenge is sparked in the UK.
The European Council of heads of state meets for a summit next week – October 17 and 18 – the last such meeting before Britain’s scheduled departure at the end of the month.
The main sticking point in the divorce is how to keep open the border between the UK province of Northern Ireland and the Irish republic, an EU member.
After “detailed and constructive” talks on Thursday, Johnson and Varadkar said finding a deal was in the interests of all sides – but made clear more work was needed.
“They agreed to reflect further on their discussions and that officials would continue to engage intensively on them,” read a joint statement.
Varadkar will now meet with EU officials, while British Brexit Secretary Steve Barclay is due in Brussels on Friday for talks with the bloc’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier.
Johnson has vowed Britain will end its five-decade membership of the EU on October 31, with or without agreeing exit terms.
But he will be forced to seek a delay if he fails to agree a deal by next week’s summit. Despite his public statements and those of his aides and ministers, Johnson’s administration last week made a sincere undertaking to a court that it would abide by legislation passed by parliament mandating the prime minister to seek a Brexit extension if a deal was not reached.
Should the prime minister refuse to obey the law, he could find himself before a court, along with other senior government figures, on charges of contempt – a situation thought to be unprecedented.
Johnson’s high-stakes meeting with Varadkar comes after recriminations flew on both sides over who was to blame for the impasse.
French President Emmanuel Macron voiced his frustration on Thursday.
“Brexit is a British domestic crisis, not a European one,” he said, adding that what was important now was to finalise negotiations and see if there was “something that I hope could fly”.
But he added: “At the very end this is a British responsibility” over whether it leaves the EU with or without a deal – or even cancels the Brexit process outright.
Irish border block
Johnson and Varadkar’s discussion “concentrated on the challenges of customs and consent” over the Irish border, their statement said.
After British MPs repeatedly rejected the previous “backstop” plan, Johnson presented a new proposal last week – but it received a cold reception in Brussels.
He proposed Northern Ireland stay aligned to the EU’s single market but remain in a separate UK-wide customs territory, envisaging customs but no regulatory checks on the frontier.
Northern Ireland’s opt-in to the plan would be open to four-yearly review by the province’s devolved assembly and executive – which is currently in crisis and has not sat for nearly three years.
But Brussels is adamant it will not agree to any plan that undermines the single market – which allows free movement of goods across Europe – or which risks exacerbating tensions on the island of Ireland.
A free-flowing border is considered vital to maintaining peace in Northern Ireland, which was plagued by three decades of sectarian violence, which was largely brought to an end with the 1998 Good Friday peace accords.
Before the meeting with Johnson, Varadkar told Ireland’s parliament that he would work “until the last moment” to get a deal, but added: “Certainly not at any cost.”