Barnier 'failing to make himself available for Brexit talks'
Despite the EU negotiator’s claims that he was available “24-7” for talks, Barnier was said to have been resistant to requests for lengthy meetings with Raab to discuss the details of the UK’s proposals, hammered out at Chequers.
The British cabinet minister was granted only a two-hour meeting with Barnier last week, and was initially offered only a three-hour slot this Friday, due to the former French minister’s diary constraints, the Guardian has learned.
Barnier – who tweeted a picture of himself on Sunday posing in the sun in Albertville, in his home region of Savoie in south-east France – has been in Germany, and was understood to be again leaving Brussels for Croatia on Friday afternoon, following what was set to be an early morning meeting with Raab.
Barnier subsequently changed his flights, however. Five hours of talks with Raab are now pencilled in to his diary awaiting confirmation, it is understood.
An EU official said: “The commission is working for a deal. Negotiation agendas, including meetings between principals, are decided jointly. The aim of the meetings between the principals is to take stock of progress made at technical and coordinator level.”
UK diplomats have complained that the commission’s repeated claims, made again by a spokesman on Tuesday, that Barnier was available for high-level talks at any point, night or day, had proven to be hyperbole.
Representations have been made to the EU in which commission officials were told that Raab required lengthy meetings to discuss the detail of the Chequers plan, which the UK believes is not being given the attention it deserves.
The two sides pledged earlier this summer to have continuous Brexit talks in the final stage of the negotiations, with Barnier insisting a deal needed to be struck by “the beginning of November, but not much later than that”.
But UK officials were said to be “tearing their hair out” at the EU’s failure to live up to their pledges to intensify talks at the highest level. The issue has been a reversal of the positions earlier in the talks, when Barnier made the point to EU diplomats in private that he would have liked to see more of David Davis, the then Brexit secretary, in Brussels.
Davis, who left much of the detailed discussions in Brussels to the prime minister’s Brexit adviser, Olly Robbins, found joint press conferences with Barnier particularly irksome, and complained that they merely offered the EU’s negotiator an opportunity to criticise the British positions.
The tension in the talks has been exacerbated by a lack of progress in the negotiations last week, despite claims by both sides that the discussions had been “positive”.
The Guardian has learned that discussions over Northern Ireland proved to be some of the most difficult yet, with both sides digging in. Irish government officials, briefed on the meeting, were told that the UK side had insisted that progress on avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland could not be made unless there was progress on Chequers.
The EU, in turn, repeated that the British government needed to live up to the commitments it made on an “all-weather” solution to avoiding a hard border through a backstop solution in the withdrawal agreement, which would snap into place if a wider deal or bespoke technological solution did not solve the problem.
Sources said the talks were so difficult that the only positive that could be taken was that the clash between the officials had been aired now rather than later in the year.
Raab indicated his frustration with Barnier during a brief press conference last week when he expressed hope for a longer meeting this week, and suggested that a deal would require “energy on both sides”.
The Department for Exiting the European Union said: “Both the secretary of state and Michel Barnier are committed to weekly discussions to ensure that both sides get a good deal.
“Over the next few weeks, our teams will work at pace to finalise the terms of the United Kingdom’s orderly withdrawal from the European Union, and lay the framework for a new deep and special partnership.”