Barnier hails ‘constructive meeting’ with Brexit Secretary in Brussels

EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier has hailed a “constructive meeting” with Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay, as leaders eyed a glimmer of hope for brokering a new divorce deal.

Mr Barnier compared the UK’s departure from the European Union to climbing a mountain, stressing the need for “determination and patience”, after the talks in Brussels on Friday.

The tepid positivity came after European Council president Donald Tusk noted “promising signals” from Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar after his face-to-face discussions with Boris Johnson.

Both prime ministers said they could “see a pathway” to a possible agreement before the negotiators were dispatched for talks.

On his way out, Mr Barnier told reporters: “We had a constructive meeting with Steve Barclay and the British team and now I’m going to debrief the 27 ambassadors and the Brexit steering group of the (European) parliament.

“I’ve already said that Brexit is like climbing a mountain: we need vigilance, determination and patience.”

Mr Barnier passed through the media pack to discuss the meeting with the representatives of the EU27 and the group led by Guy Verhofstadt before planning their next move.

A statement from the UK Government also described it as a “constructive meeting”.

While the pair were in talks, Mr Tusk sent a tweet offering Mr Johnson lukewarm hope that progress could be achieved, saying he had “received promising signals” from the Taoiseach.

But he warned: “The UK has still not come forward with a workable, realistic proposal.”

The meeting between Mr Johnson and Mr Varadkar at a country manor on the Wirral on Thursday came after a week of abrupt exchanges between London, Dublin and Brussels.

Dramatic progress could lead to the start of so-called intensive “tunnel” negotiations in the coming days, ahead of the crunch EU heads of government summit on October 17 and 18.

The unexpectedly cordial atmosphere of the meeting between the two premiers led to speculation over a possible compromise on the contentious issue of the Northern Ireland border backstop.

Sterling rose sharply on international money markets in the wake of the talks, on which Cabinet received a briefing on Friday morning.

After more than two hours of “detailed and constructive” discussions at the country manor, the two leaders said it was in “everybody’s interest” to get an agreement which would allow the UK to leave with a deal.

Mr Varadkar said he hoped the progress they had made would be “sufficient” to enable intensive negotiations to resume in Brussels ahead of next week’s crucial EU summit.

Countdown to leaving the EU
(PA Graphics)

The Taoiseach said: “I think it is possible for us to come to an agreement, to have a treaty to allow the UK to leave the EU in an orderly fashion, and to have that done by the end of October, but there’s many a slip between cup and lip.

“In terms of how long it will take, I can’t predict that with any certainty, but I think all sides would like there to be an agreement next week at the council if possible.”

Mr Varadkar refused to be drawn on any “concessions” made by either side, while UK Government sources would not comment on Irish press reports suggesting “significant movement” by the UK.

But there were demands for knowledge of what the UK conceded to the bloc.

Tory former chancellor and arch-Brexiteer Lord Norman Lamont told the BBC: “I have to know what the concessions are.”

“Maybe there is some change on the mechanism whereby the deal is approved by the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive.

“Maybe there will be an opting-out mechanism rather than an opting-in mechanism.”

The softer mood music after Mr Johnson’s meeting with the Taoiseach followed an intensive few days which saw an acrimonious war of words explode and the talks appear close to collapse.

Briefings by anonymous Downing Street sources had accused Mr Varadkar of backtracking on previous commitments to try to find a deal, and of refusing to negotiate.

And following a heated telephone call between Mr Johnson and German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Tuesday, Number 10 sources claimed the EU was making it “essentially impossible” for Britain to leave with a deal.

On Wednesday, Mr Barnier told the European Parliament there was still no basis for a fresh agreement.

He said the UK had yet to put forward an “operational, legally binding solution” to replace the Northern Ireland backstop – intended to prevent the return of a hard border with the Republic.

Without a deal, Mr Johnson will face demands from opposition parties to comply with the so-called Benn Act which would require him to request a three-month Brexit delay if there is no agreement by October 19.

The PM has said that, while he will abide by the law, he is determined to leave on the Halloween deadline of October 31 come what may.

Government sources have said ministers are preparing to hold an emergency Saturday sitting of Parliament on October 19.

Many MPs believe if he cannot get a deal, Mr Johnson will use the occasion to push for a “people versus Parliament” general election, possibly as early as next month.

If a deal did emerge, Mr Johnson would also need the backing of the DUP and Eurosceptic Tories to have any chance of getting it through without opposition support.

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