Brussels sees little evidence of progress in latest Brexit talks

Technical ‘non-papers’ with new UK proposals a rehash of old ideas, sources say

Britain’s Brexit secretary Stephen Barclay in Brussels on Friday. “We are moving forward with momentum,” he told Sky News.  Photograph:  Kenzo Tribouillard/EPA

Britain’s Brexit secretary Stephen Barclay in Brussels on Friday. “We are moving forward with momentum,” he told Sky News. Photograph: Kenzo Tribouillard/EPA


UK “technical” papers on replacing the Northern Ireland backstop have done nothing to advance the Brexit talks, EU sources in Brussels say.

Although the EU has for months been asking the British negotiators to put their proposals on paper, the three “non-papers” submitted by London on Thursday represent no more than a rehashing of previously discussed and unworkable ideas which go nowhere near to doing the job of the backstop, the sources say.

But following more talks here on Friday between EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier and the British Brexit secretary Stephen Barclay, the latter expressed optimism to Sky News that “there is a common purpose, we both want to see a deal”.

“There is significant work still to do, but there is serious discussions that are taking place. We are moving forward with momentum,” Mr Barclay said.

“The meeting actually overran,” he said, “which I think signals the fact that we were getting into the detail and we’ll have further discussions next week. I think both sides want to see a deal and we are working hard on that.”

The one-hour scheduled meeting overran by 20 minutes.


Mr Barclay was sketchy on the substance of discussions although he continued to champion so-called alternative arrangements which the UK believes could substitute for the backstop . “They have an important part to play, the commission themselves has recognised that, ” he insisted.

A somewhat more sanguine Mr Barnier did not join in the prediction game. A statement from the commission said the discussions “on the state of play of” the talks had covered the backstop and the future relationship political declaration.

“It is essentaial that there is a fully workable and legally operational solution included in the Withdrawal Agreement,” it  tweeted in an oft-repeated mantra. “We remain willing and open to examine any such proposals that meet all objectives of the backstop .“

Tánaiste Simon Coveney said on the BBC on Friday morning that there was still a “wide gap” between the EU and UK. He also warned that any arrangements that do not deliver the effects of the current backstop in full would lead to new border checks, which would have “very damaging and very difficult” ramifications for the island of Ireland.

These would include “the management of civil unrest”, he warned.

The “non-papers” – papers which are submitted by one side to facilitate discussion on issues without committing that side to their contents – are not being circulated to the member states at the UK’s insistence. Some diplomats express concern that such restrictions would inhibit discussion.

The papers are understood to cover the well -rehearsed possibilities of the use of technology and trusted-trader schemes to facilitate customs checks away from the Irish Border, and the joint surveillance of the market in manufactured goods to ensure substandard goods do not enter the single market.

The final UK paper discusses the scope of a potential all-Ireland sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) or agri-food zone. On that issue there is understood to be the beginnings of a meeting of minds.

Ad hoc

But EU officials are adamant that the backstop cannot be replaced by an ad hoc patchwork of sectoral-based measures.

The UK is still not ready to submit formal proposals despite warnings from the French president, Emmanuel Macron, and the prime minister of Finland (which has the EU presidency), Antti Rinne, that it really only has two weeks. That would allow any deal to be prepared for the crunch EU summit on October 17th.

“We will table formal written solutions when we are ready,” a British government spokeswoman said on Thursday. 

The two technical teams will meet in Brussels again next week, while British prime minister Boris Johnson and European Council president Donald Tusk are expected to meet in New York on the fringes of the UN General Assembly in New York.