Brexit Secretary to meet EU negotiator after Juncker says ‘we can have a deal’

Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay will meet with the EU’s chief negotiator in Brussels after Jean-Claude Juncker insisted “we can have a deal” before the Halloween deadline.

Mr Barclay will head to Brussels for talks with Michel Barnier on Friday following the European Commission president’s warm words, which will have buoyed hopes in Downing Street.

Mr Juncker said his meeting with Boris Johnson in Luxembourg on Monday was “rather positive” as he assured he was “doing everything to have a deal” to prevent a “catastrophic” no-deal Brexit.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker leaving Le Bouquet Garni restaurant in Luxembourg
Boris Johnson and Jean-Claude Juncker leaving Le Bouquet Garni restaurant in Luxembourg (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

Speaking to Sky News, Mr Juncker said “we can have a deal”, but was unable to put the chances at more than 50/50 when pressed.

Mr Juncker said that he has no “emotional relationship” with the Irish backstop, which aims to prevent a hard border returning to the island of Ireland but has been a major sticking point to getting a deal through Parliament.

“If the objectives are met – all of them – then we don’t need the backstop,” he added.

The pound reached a two-month high following Mr Juncker’s comments.

Mr Barclay’s department said he will meet with Mr Barnier to “take stock” following discussions between the PM’s Europe adviser David Frost and Taskforce 50 – the EU unit dealing with the UK’s departure.

A day earlier, Mr Barnier spoke with Labour MPs Caroline Flint and Stephen Kinnock, who are key in cross-party efforts to get a deal through Parliament.

Mr Kinnock told BBC’s Newsnight that they left feeling “relatively, cautiously optimistic” after the Brussels meeting because of mounting pressure on the PM.

He said that the negotiator made it clear that a Northern Ireland-only backstop remained on the table.

The EU’s original proposal, which was objected to by the DUP, would see Northern Ireland remaining in the EU’s single market and customs union, but give Great Britain the freedom to strike trade deals.

Also in the interview, Mr Barnier confirmed that he had received documents from Mr Johnson outlining draft ideas for a fresh Withdrawal Agreement late on Wednesday night.

Downing Street had said the UK has shared a series of “confidential technical non-papers” which reflect the ideas being put forward.

Previously documents had been shown to Brussels officials, but then taken back at the end of meetings out of fears they would be leaked.

But a “non-paper” is not a formal Government position and falls far short of what has been demanded by Brussels.

The PM was under pressure from Finnish prime minister Antti Rinne to formally outline his plans to the EU by the end of September.

Mr Rinne told reporters after meeting French president Emmanuel Macron that they “agreed that it is now time for Boris Johnson to produce his own proposals in writing – if they exist”.

The Government insisted Mr Johnson will not be bound by an “artificial deadline” to produce formal written proposals to resolve the Brexit deadlock.

Mr Johnson said progress was being made, but the extent of it should not be exaggerated.

“You heard Jean-Claude Juncker yesterday say that he doesn’t have any emotional attachment to the backstop,” Mr Johnson said.

“Now that is progress – they weren’t saying that a month ago.”

But Ireland’s deputy prime minister Simon Coveney said a “big gap” remains between the UK and the bloc.

“And in order to close that gap we need to get credible proposals from the British government which we simply haven’t received yet,” he said.

Ahead of Friday’s meeting, Mr Barclay warned the EU against a “rigid” approach and suggested the final details of an alternative to the Irish backstop may not need to be resolved until the end of 2020.

Mr Barclay said the PM had shown he was willing to be “creative and flexible” by considering an all-Ireland approach to plant and animal checks, and suggested that it was now for the European Commission to shift its stance.

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