The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator said he was still holding out hope of being in London for talks on a future trade deal with the UK this week, even as the negotiations remain on ice because of Britain’s demands for a “fundamental” change of approach.
Speaking at a closed-door meeting with members of the European Parliament following a call with UK negotiator David Frost, Michel Barnier said that the ball was in Britain’s court to decide whether to return to the negotiating table.
Participants at the Tuesday afternoon meeting said that Mr Barnier saw Thursday as the earliest opportunity to hold talks in London, but that nothing was confirmed and that the fate of the talks would depend on the UK.
Mr Barnier and Lord Frost held what British officials called a “constructive discussion” by phone. But the UK is still not ready to resume face-to-face talks despite Brussels offering to intensify negotiations on the basis of shared legal texts.
People briefed on Lord Frost and Mr Barnier’s call on Tuesday afternoon said that the conversation descended into a push from the British negotiator for more concessions, while the Frenchman insisted that the bloc’s internal reflections were over and that it was time for the UK to decide whether to come back to the table.
Mr Barnier is due to give his assessment in a public address to the European Parliament on Wednesday morning, but he told Lord Frost not to expect a change in position.
The UK prime minister Boris Johnson declared last week that Brussels had “abandoned” the talks by taking unacceptable positions such as suggesting that only the UK needed to give ground. This was contradicted on the same day by leaders such as German chancellor Angela Merkel, who insisted that both sides needed to move, but the UK has stuck to its line ever since.
Following the latest call between Mr Barnier and Lord Frost — the pair also spoke on Monday — the Frenchman wrote on Twitter: “My message: we should be making the most out of the little time left. Our door remains open.” Privately, EU officials were frustrated that the negotiations remained on ice.
Downing Street said Lord Frost and Mr Barnier would “remain in contact”.
Despite the apparent impasse, senior British officials expect end of game negotiations on a trade agreement to start again later this week, provided the EU makes it clear that both sides will need to compromise to get a deal.
“There will only be a basis to resume the talks if there is a fundamental change in approach from the EU and an acceptance that movement needs to come from the EU side as well as the UK,” said one.
London is waiting for Mr Barnier to make it clear that the EU will give ground on the issue of access to UK fisheries, while details of Britain’s new state aid regime continue to thwart progress.
“We are keeping a cool head and keep our eye on making a compromise deal,” said one EU official.
One senior UK official said the negotiations were “in bad shape”, citing a general lack of confidence on the UK side that a deal was do-able.
Meanwhile, the House of Lords on Tuesday voted by 395 to 169 for a critical amendment to the government’s controversial UK internal market bill, which ministers have admitted would breach international law.
The amendment, backed by 39 Conservatives, said the legislation “would undermine the rule of law and damage the reputation of the United Kingdom” by unpicking the UK’s withdrawal treaty with the EU, agreed last year by Mr Johnson.
Among those supporting the amendment were seven bishops, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, as well as former Tory leader Michael Howard, former Tory chancellor Ken Clarke, and Richard Keen, who resigned as the government’s advocate-general for Scotland over the bill.
The crucial moment in parliament’s upper house will come in late October and early November when peers could throw out clauses to the bill which override the withdrawal treaty relating to Northern Ireland.
Although the House of Commons would almost certainly vote to reinstate them, peers are likely to frustrate the passage of the bill for some time in protest at what they see as a flagrant breach of international law.
Mr Johnson will hope that he can make progress in talks with the EU on a trade agreement before the parliamentary crunch arrives, allowing him to quietly drop the offending clauses as part of a final deal with Brussels.
Additional reporting by Peter Foster in London