Brexit: Michel Barnier urges talks, saying deal ‘within reach’

EU negotiator underlines that ball is in UK’s court to restart trade deal negotiations

Michel Barnier at the European Parliament in Brussels: “Our door remains open, and will remain until the last practical day for working together.” Photograph:  Olivier Hoslet, Pool via AP

Michel Barnier at the European Parliament in Brussels: “Our door remains open, and will remain until the last practical day for working together.” Photograph: Olivier Hoslet, Pool via AP

 

Michel Barnier said on Wednesday that a post-Brexit trade deal with the UK was “within reach” as he acknowledged that compromises would be needed by both sides to salvage the talks.

The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator pledged that he was ready to work “in a very intensive way, day and night” to get a trade deal with Britain over the line, underlining that the ball was now in the UK court to restart talks.

Negotiations have been on ice since last week because of UK prime minister Boris Johnson’s decision to demand a “fundamental” rethink from Brussels before allowing further discussions.

Mr Johnson criticised a statement adopted by EU leaders at a summit last week that called on the UK “to make the necessary moves to make an agreement possible”, saying there was no point continuing talks if all concessions needed to come from the British side.

But, speaking in the European Parliament, Mr Barnier made it clear that was not the case, and he believed a way could be found to marry UK and EU positions in the talks without any fundamental principles being sacrificed.

“An agreement is within reach if we are on both sides prepared to work constructively and in a spirit of compromise, if we advance in the coming days on the basis of legal texts, as is our desire, and finally if we are ready . . . to take on and resolve the most difficult points,” he said.

Mr Barnier has spoken twice this week with his UK counterpart David Frost in a bid to get talks back on track. The Frenchman briefed MEPs at a closed-door meeting on Tuesday evening that he was still holding out hope of being in London for negotiations this week.

Responding to Mr Barnier’s comments, a spokesperson for Number 10 said: “We note with interest that the EU’s negotiator, speaking to the European parliament this morning, has commented in a significant way on the issues behind the current difficulties in our talks. We are studying carefully what was said.

“David Frost will discuss the situation when he speaks to Michel Barnier later today.”

Unresolved issues

Negotiations remain stuck on three main unresolved issues: fishing rights in British waters, fair competition rules for business and mechanisms for resolving future disputes.

In his speech, Mr Barnier sought to put pressure on the UK to make up its mind whether it wants a deal, saying that time was running out.

“Time is very limited, it becomes more limited every day, and that is why we have to find with the British, if they want it, solutions to the most difficult problems,” he said. “Our door remains open, and will remain until the last practical day for working together.”

Speaking at the same parliamentary session, Charles Michel, the president of the European Council, stressed that the UK could not have its “cake and eat it too” and that Britain had “a big decision to make” about the future relationship.

The council president said the UK needed to reflect on “the model of society and the model of economy” it wanted. “Their sovereign answer will determine their level of access to our internal market,” he said.

Mr Barnier pointed to recent progress in talks on “level-playing field” guarantees for companies – including in the area of state aid – as a sign that difficult disagreements could be overcome.

He acknowledged that Britain had, over the past few weeks, moved to recognise the agreement would need to include “fundamental principles” limiting state subsidies that will go “beyond what exists in other free trade agreements and at the WTO”.

“But it is necessary now that these intentions translate into outcomes in the negotiations,” he said. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2020