Boris Johnson and Leo Varadkar have agreed they can see a “pathway to a possible Brexit deal” but warned there were still challenges ahead if an agreement was to be struck at next week’s EU summit.
The prime minister hosted his Irish counterpart for a private encounter at a country house in Wirral in the north-west of England, which they described as a “detailed and constructive discussion”.
“Both continue to believe that a deal is in everybody’s interest. They agreed that they could see a pathway to a possible deal,” a statement said.
“Their discussion concentrated on the challenges of customs and consent.
“They also discussed the potential to strengthen bilateral relations, including on Northern Ireland.”
There was no further detail on how the two sides could come to a compromise, but it will revive some hope for Johnson about the possibility of a deal at next week’s EU summit.
The meeting, in a manor house half an hour from Liverpool, lasted more than three hours.
The key stumbling blocks to a deal for Ireland have been Johnson’s proposal to take Northern Ireland out of the EU customs union on Brexit day, and his plan to give the defunct Stormont assembly the final say on whether the region should also stay aligned to EU rules on goods and agrifood.
Earlier this week, Varadkar said he thought it would be “very difficult” to secure an agreement by the time EU leaders meet next Thursday, but all efforts were focused on doing so because the stakes were so high.
The taoiseach also said the UK had “repudiated” the previous deal negotiated with Theresa May’s government to ensure no hard border re-emerged on the island of Ireland because of Brexit. The British had “sort of put half of that now back on the table, and are saying that’s a concession. And of course it isn’t, really.”