EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier told ambassadors in Brussels Friday that there are grounds for going deeper into negotiations with the U.K.
Barnier met his opposite number U.K. Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay on Friday morning to take stock of the talks. Diplomats had been pessimistic about significant progress by the end of this week, seen as a necessary precursor to a deal at the European Council summit on Thursday next week.
After a fractious start to the week, the Brexit mood music became more positive following a meeting between Boris Johnson and Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar on Thursday. After that meeting Varadkar said he could see a “pathway to a deal,” language echoed in a statement issued by Downing Street.
However, skepticism remains among the EU27 that a deal can be done in time to agree it at next week’s leader’s summit.
Following Friday’s stock take, both a U.K. government spokesperson and Barnier told journalists after the meeting that it had been “constructive.” However, Barnier sounded a note of caution as he left: “I’ve already said that Brexit is like climbing a mounting: we need vigilance, determination and patience.”
Later in the afternoon, Johnson ducked questions about customs arrangements in Northern Ireland after Brexit, one of two main obstacles to a deal between the U.K. and the EU.
Speaking during a visit to a school, Johnson said: “Well, I can certainly tell you that under no circumstances will we see anything that damages the ability of the whole of the United Kingdom to take full advantage of Brexit.
However, Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party issued a statement to reiterate that they would not support deal that effectively puts a border down the Irish see, cutting Northern Ireland off from the rest of the U.K.
“We have been consistent in our opposition to the backstop, whether U.K. or NI only, and anything that traps Northern Ireland in the European Union, whether single market or customs union, as the rest of the United Kingdom leaves will not have our support. The prime minister is very mindful of that,” the DUP’s leader Arlene Foster said in a statement.
She restated that the U.K. “must leave the EU as one nation” and that “democratic consent was required in circumstances where Northern Ireland would align alongside specific sectors of the EU single market.”
Earlier in the day, Tusk told reporters that the U.K. “still not come forward with a workable, realistic proposal” and that “there’s no guarantee of success and the time is practically up” but added: “Even the slightest chance must be used.”
Three diplomats present at the Barnier briefing for EU27 ambassadors said he had recommended stepping up the talks. One characterized the change as moving from a phase of questioning the U.K. negotiating team about aspects of London’s offer to a true negotiation dialogue. But a second diplomat said this did not mean the talks were heading into a so-called tunnel where the two sides enter into intensive talks with little outside communication.
“It is not really a tunnel. We will go deeper into negotiations,” the diplomat said, adding, “we don’t want to raise expectations.”
A third diplomat said: “intensive discussions are planned throughout the next days.”
Eleni Courea and Cristina Gallardo contributed reporting.
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