No sign of progress after 'robust' Brexit talks in Brussels

No sign of progress after 'robust' Brexit talks in Brussels

Attorney general says ‘strong views’ were expressed in talks but refuses to go into details

The Brexit negotiations have stumbled in Brussels after late-night talks with EU officials that the attorney general, Geoffrey Cox, described as “robust”.

Shortly before leaving Brussels, Cox conceded that “strong views” had been expressed during three hours of discussion on Tuesday night.

The two sides are seeking to find a set of legally binding assurances on the temporary nature of the Irish backstop to win over MPs to the prime minister’s deal when it returns to the Commons on Tuesday.

“There are very sensitive discussions,” Cox told reporters. “We are into the meat of the matter now. We have put forward some proposals, very reasonable proposals. We are now into the detail of the discussion.”

The cabinet minister and government legal adviser, who had travelled with the Brexit secretary, Stephen Barclay, to the Belgian capital, added: “I can’t reveal the discussions. These are private and confidential discussions. Both sides have exchanged robust, strong views and we are now facing the real discussions. Talks will be resuming soon.”

The EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, offered a gloomy progress report to officials on Wednesday morning, including the European commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker.

A European commission spokesman disclosed that Barnier had “informed the commissioners that while the talks take place in a constructive atmosphere, discussions have been difficult. No solution has been identified at this point that is consistent with the withdrawal agreement including the protocol on Northern Ireland, which as you all know will not be reopened.”

The latest negotiations have been focused on turning a series of pledges made in a letter last December by Juncker, and his European council counterpart, Donald Tusk, into legally binding commitments.

Those include stating the EU’s “firm determination” to have an alternative to the backstop ready before the end of 2020 to avoid it being triggered.

Should the customs union it envisages come into force, both sides would set the “objective of making this period as short as possible”.

Such commitments could be used in arbitration by the UK should there be any doubt about the “good faith” of the EU negotiators in negotiating a trade deal or working on a technological fix for the border.

But the EU in turn wants to avoid any legal add-on to the withdrawal agreement that undermines the terms of the backstop, which would keep the UK in a customs union and Northern Ireland in the single market if there was no other alternative to avoiding a hard border with Ireland.

There are doubts, given the debate in Westminster over its future plans, and the prime minister’s continued insistence that the UK should be able to enjoy the benefits of frictionless trade without being in the customs union, that the EU is setting itself an unachievable goal of making such swift progress in the future trade talks.

One EU official said it was unlikely that a deal would be in place before the weekend. Sources suggested Barclay and Cox could return on Friday and that any text would be unlikely to be signed off until Monday during a possible visit to Brussels by the prime minister on the eve of the Commons vote.

The British side is seeking to convince the EU’s negotiators that this week offers the best chance of winning over parliament, and reversing January’s historic 230 vote defeat of the withdrawal agreement.

There are concerns among UK officials that the EU side is working on the assumption that there will a better opportunity for success once a one-off extension of article 50 is triggered, and MPs face a choice of deal or no deal at a later vote.

Barclay told reporters: “We had a robust discussion. Constructive engagement. We set out very clearly what the position is for Her Majesty’s government and also what the position is for parliament. We made those clear. We set those out.”

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