Brexit Silence Can’t Hide Hints That a Deal Is Getting Closer

(Bloomberg) -- A cloak of secrecy surrounds the negotiations on the U.K.’s exit from the European Union.

Neither side has reported in any detail what’s going on behind closed doors in Brussels since Prime Minister Theresa May updated Parliament on Oct. 22. But the lack of public comment doesn’t mean nothing’s happening.

Brexit Silence Can’t Hide Hints That a Deal Is Getting Closer

British and European negotiators are locked away trying to break the deadlock and with just five months left before the U.K. is due to leave, there are signs that a deal is being done away from the public gaze.

In private, officials on both sides say the next time major Brexit news breaks is likely to be when they have agreed to the terms of the divorce. And that could be sooner than many observers think.

In London, Prime Minister Theresa May’s officials believe intensive negotiations will deliver the decisive step needed for an agreement within the next few weeks, according to two people familiar with the matter.

Brexit Silence Can’t Hide Hints That a Deal Is Getting Closer

The key sticking point remains how to avoid customs checks taking place at the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, without putting up new barriers between Northern Ireland and the British mainland.

Even on this most vexed of all issues, the so-called Irish border backstop, there’s evidence of progress.

The Financial Times reported on Thursday that the EU is ready to make a fresh compromise offer on how the backstop should be structured. The bloc would agree to May’s call for a U.K.-wide customs deal with the EU as a way to avoid goods checks either between mainland Britain and Northern Ireland, or at the frontier with the Republic of Ireland. Crucially, this would be a legally binding commitment under the terms of the separation treaty, the paper reported.

The U.K. and the EU are “certainly very close to resolving” the border issue, May’s de facto deputy David Lidington said during a visit to Dublin on Friday. He said he “expects and hopes” for a deal in the coming weeks. Lidington said he wouldn’t predict the timing of a deal but pointed out that a Cabinet meeting could be called at any time.

Brexit Silence Can’t Hide Hints That a Deal Is Getting Closer

May’s office also sounded positive. “We’ve put forward our proposals and the EU are engaging with them and negotiations continue,” Alison Donnelly, the prime minister’s spokeswoman, added on Friday. “Beyond that, there’s not much I can say.”

Donnelly’s guarded approach reflects acute sensitivity among May’s team. If they say too much in public, the delicate trade inside the negotiating room could be fatally disrupted, they fear.

When the Times newspaper reported that the negotiators had agreed the terms of a future trade deal for financial services on Thursday, May’s office hit back unusually hard, urging reporters in London not to follow the story and telling the media to calm down.

But even if a deal is done in Brussels in the coming days, May will have to sell it in London -- first to her own Cabinet, and then to Parliament.

In private, some pro-Brexit officials in the government fear she’s preparing to bounce the Cabinet into agreeing the whole divorce deal on Tuesday.

A Cabinet meeting has been called as usual for Tuesday morning, but -- exceptionally -- ministers invited to attend have not yet been told what’s on the agenda, one person familiar with the matter said. The secrecy is raising suspicions that May and her aides are planning to stitch up a deal with the EU and try to force the cabinet to agree to it, the person said.

The crucial test inside the Cabinet will be if May can persuade Attorney General Geoffrey Cox to back her plan. If he does, other senior ministers who are worried about the proposals will also get behind the deal, the person added.

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