Fresh Brexit talks row as UK asks EU to keep its proposals secret
Downing Street’s secrecy over its “underwhelming” Brexit proposals has caused a fresh rupture in the negotiations in Brussels where the two sides appear to be increasingly at loggerheads.
The row centres on a demand that the EU’s negotiating team treat a long-awaited cache of documents outlining the UK’s latest ideas as “Her Majesty’s government property”.
Whitehall told the European commission team that the three “confidential” papers should not be distributed to Brexit delegates representing the EU’s 27 other member states.
Sources in Brussels said that in response the point was being made forcefully to the British negotiating team that all proposals would need to be made available for the EU’s capitals to analyse for talks to progress.
With just six weeks until 31 October when the UK is due to leave the EU, there is despair in Brussels at the state of the talks, with the latest ideas seen as “more of the same” from Downing Street.
The Brexit secretary, Stephen Barclay, on a visit to Brussels was unable to offer any positive comments about progress in the talks except to say that his meeting on Friday with the EU’s chief negotiator had lasted longer than expected.
“The meeting actually overran, which I think signals the fact that we were getting into the detail and we’ll have further discussions next week”, he said.
Asked about claims from the Irish government that the two sides are far apart in their negotiating positions, Barclay added: “I think there is still a lot of work to do but there is a common purpose to secure a deal.”
A statement from the European commission described the British contribution in the latest talks as “a first set of concepts, principles and ideas”. But the commission insisted that it was “essential that there is a fully workable and legally operational solution included in the withdrawal agreement”.
The three so-called non-papers submitted ahead of the latest talks by the UK are focused on suggestions already broached in recent weeks by Boris Johnson’s chief negotiator, David Frost. Many of the ideas were also previously rejected at various points in the last two years of talks.
The ideas raised in the non-papers, which do not commit the government to a specific policy, include the use of technology and trusted traders’ 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 one area of convergence is on the need for an all-Ireland sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) or agrifood zone. The final UK paper opens discussions on the scope of such a zone.
Explaining to the EU27 the failure to provide copies of the papers to the member states’ representatives for their own analysis, the commission’s Brexit taskforce wrote in an email: “The UK labelled the documents as HMG property and requested us not to do any onward disclosure … We intend to discuss working methods with the UK in terms of transparency and sharing information.”
The foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, has previously claimed that the government has been loth to share written proposals with the EU in case they are leaked and trashed in public.
EU diplomats complain that it will be impossible for the negotiations to progress if the member states are unable to thoroughly analyse British plans for replacing the Irish backstop.
Downing Street is refusing to commit to tabling any concrete solutions for replacing the backstop before the two-week deadline suggested by the French president, Emmanuel Macron, and the prime minister of Finland, Antti Rinne, to allow time for negotiations to bear fruit before a crunch summit on 17 October.
A Downing Street spokesman described the deadline as “artificial”. “We will table formal written solutions when we are ready,” the spokesman said.
Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, the Irish deputy prime minister, Simon Coveney, said the gap between the two negotiating positions was wide.
He said: “Asking to remove a very significant section from the withdrawal agreement that solves many of the Irish issues without any serious proposals on how you solve these problems is not going to be the basis of an agreement.”
Barclay’s trip to Brussels coincided with the end of the 30-day “blistering timetable” to break the Brexit deadlock declared by Johnson when he met the German chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin. Merkel had said the two sides could “maybe find [a Brexit solution] in the next 30 days”, although she later clarified she had not set a formal deadline, but was pointing to the urgency of the situation.
Brussels insiders have always said there was never a 30-day deadline. “There’s only one real deadline and that’s 31 October,” one EU diplomat told the Guardian. “More worrying is that the last 30 days haven’t been put to any good use, [and neither] were the last couple of months. It doesn’t bode well about the intentions of this government for the last 30-odd days [of remaining talks]. Is the UK really happy to leave Europe without a deal?”