Brussels on Wednesday was like waiting for a horribly late train: every time the Brexit Express looked about to pull into the station, journalists, officials, and diplomats alike would glance up at the board and see that it was delayed by another few hours.
The day was supposed to hinge around a 2pm meeting between the EUs chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier and EU27 ambassadors, who would get their first look at what the commission had negotiated on their behalf. First the meeting was kicked back to 5pm and then to 7pm. Then whoever was in charge of its timing stopped bothering to officially update the start time.
Other planned briefings and updates that hinged on the contents of the great meeting shifted back with it, some pushed into Thursday and some disappearing altogether into the mists of the Brussels machine, never to be heard from again.
With negotiators in their metaphorical “tunnel” and the details of talks under wraps, what news did emerge from the fifth floor of the Berlaymont where talks were taking place was sketchy at best. Different sources blew hot and cold at different times. At one point the experience was enough to provoke an outburst from DUP leader Arlene Foster, who took to Twitter to castigate a respected Irish journalist’s EU sources for “talking nonsense”.
Most diplomats were frank: “I have no idea where we stand at all because we just don’t know. We’ll have to see what we get from Michel Barnier,” one said.
But overall, the noises throughout the day tended towards the positive, which is why it didn’t quite fit the narrative when ambassadors did emerge from their cocoon in the European Council’s Europa building past 9pm to say there had been no deal struck.
Several states’ ambassadors had gone as far as to tell Michel Barnier they were concerned that no legal text had been finalised because their own teams needed time to scrutinise it if it is to be signed off. The main stumbling block left is on how VAT will work in Northern Ireland – an issue that hasn’t got much attention until now.
Work on a possible deal is continuing through the night here in Brussels: the whole city knows what floor commission talks are taking place on, because every other one has gone dark, with only a strip of fluorescent-lit windows remaining half way up. Whether that light at the end of the tunnel will turn out to be a train after all, we hope to find out before the weekend – but no one can truly say when.