Britain is proposing a “pared-down free trade agreement” to end the Brexit stalemate and get a deal done by the end of October, according to well-placed sources in Brussels.
Sky News has been told that the offer to switch away from a fully formed withdrawal agreement – and instead put the focus on a more limited free trade agreement (FTA) – was part of the pitch made by Prime Minister Boris Johnson to his Irish counterpart Leo Varadkar during talks on Thursday.
While an FTA will not resolve all of the issues that have dogged the existing UK proposals, insiders have said it is a “cleaner and more straightforward” approach that could form the foundation for a more wide-ranging deal.
They are encouraged by the positive reaction to Thursday’s talks and think that the backing of Mr Varadkar could be crucial in persuading other EU leaders to support a deal.
A number of EU nations – particularly those who will not suffer significant direct repercussions – have made it clear that, as an act of unity with another smaller nation, they will support a proposal if it is backed by the Irish prime minister.
An FTA between the UK and the EU would be likely to remove all tariffs on goods crossing between the two areas.
However, it would not remove the need for all customs checks – a crucial sticking point in the talks so far.
Sky News has been told that UK negotiators have been ever more irritated with what they see as the intransigence of their European counterparts, and by the amount of power that has been invested into the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier.
The British team insist that they have made “significant, wide-ranging concessions” but have received very little in return.
They believe that Mr Barnier’s contention that UK proposals are not “legally operable” is “completely and utterly wrong”, but that Mr Barnier’s conclusions “are never challenged”.
In particular, there is a feeling within the British team in Brussels that the EU has moved its negotiating position.
Last October, Mr Barnier gave a speech in which he outlined that customs checks on the Irish border needed to take place “in the least intrusive way possible”, including online declarations and regulatory checks by “market surveillance authorities”.
UK sources believe that these concepts are similar to the ideas they proposed last week, which Mr Barnier lambasted in the European Parliament.
However, they believe that, if they can secure the support of Mr Varadkar, the tide could yet turn in their favour.
Across EU diplomats, there remains a feeling that agreeing a Brexit deal before 31 October is a long shot, and that the most likely outcome is an extension.
However, the mood has slightly changed.
“I thought it was dead, but now there is a tiny flicker of life,” said one EU source. “It is a curious time.”