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‘It’s all about no-deal Brexit’ and ‘God doesn’t trust a Brit in the dark


Exclusive insight from Brussels and London after this week’s talks

By Joe Barnes, Brussels Correspondent

AS the dust settles on a tumultuous week of Brexit negotiations, both Lord Frost and Michel Barnier are working to pick up the pieces of a political explosion that threatens to ruin chances of free-trade agreement being brokered by the end of the year.

There has been no agreement, no progress, not even a press conference from either side, but a lot of mud-slinging in the process.

Boris Johnson hurled a grenade into what was expected to be a civilised week of negotiations with the publication of the Internal Market Bill – legislation designed to hand ministers the powers to overwrite EU customs checks and state subsidies for Northern Ireland as agreed with the bloc last year.

In Brussels, it raised doubt over whether the Government was prepared to fully implement and honour the terms of the withdrawal agreement. Diplomats and officials were ordered out to attack No10. Threats of legal action and restricted access were at the heart of their reaction.

As key players across the bloc softened their stance on handing Britain regulatory freedom as part of the final trade pact, they were forced into an immediate U-turn.

A senior EU diplomat told me: “There’s now a question over whether no deal will actually be that bad after all. 

“Do we trust the UK after this week’s publication of its internal market legislation? They say ‘The sun never sets on the British empire, that’s because God doesn’t trust a Brit in the dark’.”

In Downing Street, the Prime Minister’s TaskForce Europe believes they may have accidentally added some much-needed energy into the trade talks as they enter their final phase.

Problems to overcome

The No10 negotiators have been left largely frustrated by what is seen as a refusal by the EU to budge away from their “maximalist” positions, which demand Britain surrenders access to its coastal waters and signs up to swathes of red tape as the price for a deal.

British officials were left seething by a statement from Mr Barnier that claimed the UK was not interested in properly engaging in the talks.

A UK source close to the negotiations told me: “We don’t recognise the suggestion that we’ve not engaged. We’ve been engaged in talks pretty consistently for many months now.

“The problem is the EU seems to define it as accepting large elements of their position rather than being engaged in discussions and that’s one of the problems we’ll need to overcome.”

Behind the scenes, both negotiating teams actually believe they are making headway in overcoming key areas of differences, such as fisheries where the EU and UK held for the first time a serious discussion on how to divide up shared stocks.

Mr Barnier, however, faces a much more perilous task in convincing European member states that his negotiating efforts are worthwhile. 

EU ultimatum

My source’s furious rhetoric couldn’t compare to the statement issued by the European Commission after an ill-tempered meeting of the Brexit Joint Committee in London on Thursday.

Senior eurocrat Maros Sefcovic met counterpart Michael Gove to deliver an ultimatum. Trade talks will be abandoned unless the Government scraps its Internal Market Bill by the end of the month, he told the Cabinet Office minister.

“What more do we need to say as the European Union,” a European diplomat says. “Our position is clear as day.”

This leaves Mr Barnier in somewhat of a quandary. The Frenchman still wants a deal but member states would prefer his team of eurocrats focus on the bloc’s preparations for a no-deal Brexit.

“It’s all about no-deal Brexit”
Publicly, the Commission’s Task Force for Relations with the United Kingdom has said it is simply preparing for “all scenarios” after the end of the transition period on December 31.

But in the bowels of their Brussels headquarters, the focus is now on more terrifying suggestions like the possibility planes will not be able to fly or the Channel Tunnel will be effectively blocked up by bureaucratic processes. 

“Deep down, the people doing the hard work know it’s all about a no-deal Brexit,” someone familiar with the preparations tells me.

Frost and Barnier still have hope
While it may appear all doom and gloom in the Brexit talks, negotiators on both sides know they must keep working. 

Lord Frost and Mr Barnier have not cancelled meetings, which experts insist is a sign that a trade deal is still possible. 

They both just hope, out of the wreckage of this week’s furious row, a new sense of focus will emerge and drive them towards wrapping up a deal before the end of the year. 


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