UK and European Union negotiators for Brexit met on Tuesday night to try to finalize an agreement to exit the UK from the European Union. Diplomats and officials have said they may be close to a last-minute deal.
With negotiations approaching the midnight deadline on Tuesday imposed by EU Brexit chief negotiator Michel Barnier, the United Kingdom seemed willing to compromise, diplomats said.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has staked his political future on leading his country out of the bloc by October 31 – or at least being seen as having tried his best.
But while both sides have seemed more optimistic than they have been in recent months that a deal might be close, it is still unclear whether this will actually happen. Not only does Johnson first have to negotiate with the European Union – a difficult task in itself – but he must also sell the deal at home. British domestic politics can be relentless, as Johnson's predecessor Theresa May learned after making a deal with Brussels to see him defeated three times in Parliament.
The point of contention: the Irish border
The main point of contention in the closed-door negotiations in Brussels was the future of Northern Ireland, which will depart from the EU along with the rest of the United Kingdom. Both the United Kingdom and the EU say they want to keep the border with the Republic of Ireland open to preserve the hard-won peace in the region. They disagreed on how to achieve this, and the EU said Northern Ireland would have to remain strongly aligned with its own rules.
May said "no UK prime minister would agree" with a proposal to create a customs border in the Irish Sea. And Johnson has resisted the idea. But on Tuesday, he appeared to be approaching European demands in an attempt to bring the negotiations to a conclusion.
EU leaders will meet in Brussels on Thursday and Friday and will have three options: sign an agreement; agree to postpone Brexit's date until after October; or prepare for a sudden and uncontrolled departure from the UK from the block.
Barnier told reporters before the negotiating marathon: "Even if the deal is difficult, increasingly difficult, to put it bluntly, it is still possible this week."
A European diplomat involved in the talks said on Tuesday night that "there is light in the tunnel, but at the moment it comes only from neon tubes, not from the exit." The diplomat spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the negotiations behind closed doors.
The Irish border has proved to be one of the thorniest issues negotiators have faced in the last three years. The promise of an open border is central to the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, which ended 30 years of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland.
Today the border is almost invisible. A driver traveling between Belfast and Dublin need not stop for any customs checks or security checks. There are no toll booths, cameras, not even a signpost. Brexit can change all that. If the UK has its own set of tariffs and regulations, Europeans will require a customs border to prevent smuggling and to ensure the integrity of their own internal market.
But both sides fear this could lead to violence.
Second task: facing Parliament
Throughout the day, British ministers and lawmakers entered and left Boris Johnson's official residence at 10 Downing Street in London.
By some estimates, Johnson is expected to face even tighter voting in the House of Commons than May. His Conservative party no longer has a majority, and opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn has warned that his Labor party will not support Johnson's Brexit. , regardless of the details (although some Labor rebels have indicated they can support a deal).
Brexit's toughest defenders, called "Spartans," can also turn against any deal that goes beyond their limits.