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Johnson and Varadkar to Meet in Last-Ditch Bid for Brexit Deal

Tim Ross and Ian Wishart

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It’s the lunch that’s set to seal the fate of Brexit.

U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson will hold private talks with his Irish counterpart, Leo Varadkar, on Thursday, to explore whether the two sides can find room to compromise.

With just three weeks left until the U.K. is due to leave the European Union, negotiations have stalled and the time for striking an orderly separation agreement is almost up.

The stakes for the meeting, at a secret location in north-west England, could hardly be higher. The two leaders will need to find common cause if talks are not to collapse entirely. The atmosphere surrounding the negotiations has turned sour in recent days as the two sides blamed each other for their failure to make progress.

“I’m still cautiously, cautiously optimistic,” Johnson said as he described the negotiations he’s had with Britain’s “friends and partners in the EU.”

A deal is “extremely difficult, but not impossible,” Ireland’s Health Minister Simon Harris said in a RTE radio interview on Thursday.

On the Irish side, no breakthrough is considered imminent, according to a person familiar with the matter. An extension is still seen as the most likely outcome, though the situation is unpredictable before Varadkar’s meeting with Johnson and any new offer from London, the person said.

Despite the U.K. premier’s soothing tone, European politicians continued to react strongly to what they see as the “blame game” initiated by Johnson’s officials, who have accused Germany’s Angela Merkel of making a deal essentially impossible.

“We are not accepting this blame game which started in London -- we are not to be blamed,” European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said Wednesday.

The key hurdle is how to ensure there are no customs checkpoints at Ireland’s land border with the U.K. In his latest plan, Johnson proposed limited customs checks away from the frontier, but Varadkar insists any such inspections will threaten peace in the region, which suffered decades of terrorism.

The EU’s remaining 27 member states will be guided by Ireland’s position. If Johnson can convince Varadkar to move, there is a chance a deal could be outlined ahead of the crucial summit of EU leaders Oct. 17-18. At this point, the Irish government is minded to resist any effort to impose a time limit or any mechanism which allows a unilateral exit from measures designed to avoid a return to hard border on the island of Ireland.

‘It’s Possible’

On Wednesday, EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier rejected the U.K.’s proposal to work out the mechanism for customs checks during a post-Brexit transition period. Putting these decisions off would risk leading to “no checks whatsoever,” and that would damage the EU’s single market, Barnier said.

“We’re not really in a position where we’re able to find an agreement,” Barnier said. It’s possible “if there’s goodwill on both sides.”

Barnier also criticized the U.K.’s plan to give the Northern Ireland Assembly a veto over the deal. Johnson’s team say it’s vital to allow the region’s community to give “consent” for the future arrangements on the border.

But for the EU, allowing a veto for Northern Irish politicians would undermine the point of a long-term guarantee against a hard border going up at the frontier.

Both sides want clarity on the status of the negotiations by the end of the week. If the talks do break down in the days ahead, the U.K. will either be headed for a no-deal split or a humiliating third delay to the divorce, an outcome Johnson himself has vowed never to permit but which the EU is ready to grant.

Under legislation passed by Parliament against Johnson’s will, he’s required to seek a three-month delay to Brexit if he hasn’t gained approval for a new deal by Oct. 19. It’s something he’s vowed publicly he won’t do, though the government’s lawyers have told the courts he will. On Wednesday, Business Secretary Andrea Leadsom told ITV it would be “reasonable“ for Johnson to send a second letter to the EU saying that he personally doesn’t want a delay.

Leadsom also said no version of a deal that includes the Irish backstop -- a fallback provision guaranteeing no hard border after Brexit -- would be acceptable, even if the EU agreed to put a time limit on it.

In other developments:

The British Parliament scheduled an emergency sitting for Oct. 19 to discuss the outcome of the EU summit. It will be the first weekend session of the House of Commons since the Falklands War in 1982. Opposition politicians suggested using it to force through a law to hold a confirmatory referendum on any Brexit deal.Brexit Secretary Steve Barclay is planning to meet Barnier in Brussels, on Friday.Scottish judges postponed a decision on whether they need to send a letter demanding a delay to Brexit if Johnson doesn’t.Former Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt told the BBC that the EU risks “a catastrophic failure in statecraft” if its leaders fail to compromise with Johnson, saying “they haven’t really understood what’s happening in British politics right now.”Opposition Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn is due to make a speech Thursday in which he’ll say he’s ready and “champing at the bit” for an election. The Sun on Thursday says Corbyn is prepared on Oct. 21 to approve an early election if Johnson requests it, paving the way for a Nov. 26 poll.A delegation of Tories sought reassurance from Johnson that he wouldn’t go into an election campaigning for a no-deal Brexit. The premier told them he’d continue to seek a deal, Former Deputy Prime Minister Damian Green told ITV.

(Updates with Irish position starting in 6th paragraph.)

--With assistance from Alex Morales, Kitty Donaldson, Dara Doyle, Nikos Chrysoloras and Patrick Donahue.

To contact the reporters on this story: Tim Ross in London at tross54@bloomberg.net;Ian Wishart in Brussels at iwishart@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Flavia Krause-Jackson at fjackson@bloomberg.net, Thomas Penny, Alex Morales

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