British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Picture: GETTY IMAGES/JEFF MITCHELL
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Picture: GETTY IMAGES/JEFF MITCHELL

London  — It’s the meeting that is set to seal the fate of Brexit.

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

With just three weeks left until the UK 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 northwest UK, 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 has  had with Britain’s “friends and partners in the EU”.

Despite the 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 on Wednesday.

As has been the case for much of the past three years, the key hurdle has been how to ensure there are no customs checkpoints at Ireland’s land border with the UK.

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 October 17-18.

‘It’s possible’

The biggest area of dispute relates to customs arrangements on the Irish border. On Wednesday, EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier rejected the UK’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 criticised the UK’s plan to give the Northern Ireland Assembly a veto over the deal. Johnson’s team say it is 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 UK 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.