Michel Barnier has mocked Boris Johnson for issuing a “third unilateral deadline” during a meeting with EU ministers, warning that the Brexit talks remain difficult with little prospect yet of the two sides entering a decisive “tunnel” negotiation.
With 48 hours remaining before an EU leaders’ summit in Brussels, by which time the British prime minister has demanded a breakthrough moment, the bloc’s chief negotiator suggested a deal was “very difficult but still possible”, according to diplomatic sources.
He noted that Johnson had twice previously suggested that the UK needed the certainty of a deal by a specific date, only to later backtrack. “It is the third unilateral deadline that Johnson has imposed without agreement,” Barnier was said to have remarked. “We still have time.”
Johnson had said he wanted a deal before the end of summer, and then by the middle of October, before saying in recent weeks that a confident sign of a deal was all that was required.
The UK urgently wants to open a short “tunnel” negotiation during which the two chief negotiators would be given the freedom by Downing Street and the EU member capitals to be creative in solving outstanding problems on the basis that any outcome would be subsequently backed.
But after hearing Barnier’s assessment, diplomatic sources said this final phase did not appear to be on the cards “by far”.
“The negotiations are in a difficult phase,” Barnier had told the EU ministers in Luxembourg, according to multiple sources. There was a more “constructive tone”, Barnier said, but “movement on three key issues was still necessary”.
Discussions on the level-playing-field provisions, including state subsidy control, were continuing but the UK was seeking to keep the issue of EU access to British fishing waters “on the table to the last moment to ensure it can command the highest price for it”, he said. “Both sides need to have something to show to their public. It needs to be balanced.”
Separately, in a speech on Tuesday, the German chancellor Angela Merkel said an agreement had “to be in the interests of both parties, in British interests as well as the interests of the 27-member European Union”.
Barnier told ministers it was important to put the issue of access to British waters in perspective. The UK was asking to in effect stay part of the EU’s energy single market, the economic value of which was “five times” that of fish, he said.
There was also a lack of UK engagement on how the terms of the trade and security deal would be policed, Barnier told ministers, according to sources. “This is now holding up further progress”, he had said.
Barnier later tweeted: “The EU will continue to work for a fair deal in the coming days and weeks.”
Germany’s European affairs minister, Michael Roth, said he was concerned by attempts by London to open bilateral negotiations with member states on the outstanding issues but declined to comment further on his claim.
Johnson has recently held calls with Merkel and French president Emmanuel Macron. He is due to speak to the European commission president Ursula von der Leyen on Wednesday.
Roth also suggested, however, that the EU was willing to move from its insistence on the status quo in terms of access to British waters for European fishing fleet. “We have to move towards each other’s positions”, he said during a post-meeting press conference.
As details of Barnier’s sombre assessment emerged, a UK government source claimed Brussels was to blame for the lack of time in the negotiations and called for an urgent injection of “creativity”.
“The EU have been using the old playbook in which they thought running down the clock would work against the UK,” the source said.
“They have assumed that the UK would be more willing to compromise the longer the process ran, but in fact all these tactics have achieved is to get us to the middle of October with lots of work that could have been done left undone.
“This is all the more frustrating because it is clear that we have come a long way since the beginning of the year. We need the EU to urgently up the pace and inject some creativity.”