Brussels says no-deal a ‘distinct possibility’ as Johnson claims Brexit progress
Boris Johnson insisted progress is being made in Brexit talks with Brussels and the chances of an agreement have risen – but the European Union said a no-deal outcome remained a "distinct possibility".
His comments follow claims his key aide Dominic Cummings described the process as a "sham", although the Prime Minister told MPs said the report was "wholly implausible".
The European Commission said while there was "progress on process" because of the increased tempo of meetings between officials from the two sides, there were still no "concrete" proposals from the UK side about how to resolve the Irish backstop issue.
Reports from Brussels suggested diplomats from the 27 remaining EU member states were given a pessimistic assessment of progress.
Irish broadcaster RTE reported that the European Commission's Article 50 task force told diplomats that under Mr Johnson the UK is reneging on its commitments to protect the all-Ireland economy and meaningful North-South cooperation.
A source told the broadcaster: "Nothing has been put on the table, not even a proper sketch or hint of a plan. We're waiting. But for the moment there is zilch."
But Mr Johnson told MPs his efforts to force Brussels to make major changes to the Brexit deal were bearing fruit.
He said he had set out why any future agreement must see the "abolition of the anti-democratic backstop" – the measure which would keep the UK closely tied to EU rules to prevent a hard border with Ireland if no alternative solution can be found.
"We've also been clear that we will need changes to the Political Declaration to clarify that our future relationship with the EU will be based on a free trade agreement and giving us full control over our regulations, our trade and our foreign and defence policy," he said.
"This clarity has brought benefits. Far from jeopardising negotiations, it has made them more straightforward.
"In the last few weeks, I believe the chances of a deal have risen.
"This week we are intensifying the pace of meetings in Brussels. Our European friends can see that we want an agreement and they're beginning to reflect that reality in their response."
Mr Johnson will meet Irish counterpart Leo Varadkar in Dublin on Monday.
The Prime Minister acknowledged concerns about how to deal with regulations on food and agriculture and appeared to back one system operating across the island of Ireland.
"We recognise that for reasons of geography and economics agri-food is increasingly managed on a common basis across the island of Ireland," he said.
"We are ready to find ways forward that recognise this reality provided it clearly enjoys the consent of all parties and institutions with an interest."
The status of the negotiations has come under intense scrutiny after the Daily Telegraph reported that Mr Johnson's senior adviser Dominic Cummings described the process as "a sham" in private meetings – a claim strongly denied by Downing Street.
Gavin Barwell, who was Theresa May's chief of staff in Number 10, said he had heard the same reports about "sham negotiations" from "multiple" government sources.
But Downing Street said Mr Johnson's Europe adviser David Frost has held a series of meetings in Brussels and will be back there "later this week".
The talks were covering a "full range of issues, which includes the Withdrawal Agreement but also the Political Declaration", the Prime Minister's spokesman said.
The EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier will update Jean-Claude Juncker and the commissioners on Wednesday on "developments in London" and the talks with Mr Frost.
Mr Juncker would also report back on his conversations with Mr Johnson and the commission will also consider no-deal planning.
Asked whether Brussels now expected a no-deal Brexit as the most likely outcome, commission spokeswoman Mina Andreeva said: "Our working assumption is that there will be Brexit on October 31, whether it is the most likely scenario? I would say that it is a very distinct possibility, which is precisely the reason why we do launch this final call tomorrow for everyone to be prepared in case a no-deal Brexit occurs."
She said the EU "can't report any concrete proposals having been made" by the UK side to break the Brexit deadlock.