Michel Barnier tonight scrambled to salvage Brexit trade talks after the UK warned it is serious about walking away unless the EU shows more flexibility.
The bloc’s negotiator appeared to make significant concessions by saying he is ready for ‘intensified talks’ – and crucially that they can start thrashing out legal texts in the most difficult areas.
The message came after Boris Johnson told Mr Barnier not to bother coming to London for discussions this week unless he was willing to give ground.
However, Downing Street insisted this evening that the move did not go far enough, and the PM would still not allow formal negotiations to resume – although the two sides will stay ‘in close touch’.
The PM voiced fury after an EU summit last week declined to change the negotiating mandate.
But Mr Barnier tweeted this afternoon that he had informed UK counterpart Lord Frost that ‘the EU remains available to intensify talks in London this week, on all subjects, and based on legal texts’ and was awaiting reaction from London.
A No10 spokesman said: ‘This was a constructive discussion. The UK has noted the EU’s proposal to genuinely intensify talks, which is what would be expected at this stage in a negotiation.
‘However, the UK continues to believe there is no basis to resume talks unless there is a fundamental change of approach from the EU.
‘This means an EU approach consistent with trying to find an agreement between sovereign equals and with acceptance that movement needs to come from the EU side as well as the UK.
‘The two teams agreed to remain in close touch.’
The Cabinet Minister told MPs this afternoon that fresh discussions would be ‘meaningless’ as it stands because of the impasse over state aid rules and fishing
As Mr Gove was on his feet, EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier tweeted that he had met UK counterpart Lord Frost and said ‘the EU remains available to intensify talks in London this week, on all subjects, and based on legal texts’ and was awaiting reaction from London
‘Utter rubbish’: Theresa May clashes with Gove on post-Brexit security
Theresa May appeared to mouth ‘utter rubbish’ as Michael Gove claimed the UK can ‘co-operate more effectively’ in many areas over border security outside the EU than ‘we ever could inside’.
The Conservative former prime minister told the Commons: ‘The Government appears resigned to the prospect of no deal, yet one area which they should not be resigned to the prospect of no deal is in security.’
Mrs May said neither Mr Gove nor Prime Minister Boris Johnson had mentioned security in recent statements, adding: ‘Will (Mr Gove) confirm that if the UK walks away with no-deal then our police and law enforcement agencies will no longer have the necessary access to databases, such as PNR (Passenger Name Record), in order to continue to identify and catch criminals and potential terrorists in order to keep us safe?’
Mr Gove said ‘significant progress’ has been made over security co-operation, adding: ‘But it is the case that the EU are insisting that before we have access to systems, like the Schengen Information System, we have to accept the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice – we cannot accept that.
‘The second thing I’d say is there are many, many areas in which we can co-operate more effectively to safeguard our borders outside the European Union than we ever could inside, through a variety of methods and arrangements open to us, open to Border Force and open to our security and intelligence services – we can intensify the security that we give to the British people.
‘The third thing I’d say to (Mrs May) is that I agree with her: when it comes to everything, security and other matters, no deal is better than a bad deal.’
In the Commons this afternoon, Michael Gove warned the EU that a trade deal was off without ‘fundamental change’ in its bargaining position.
The Cabinet minister told MPs fresh discussions would be ‘meaningless’ as it stands because of the impasse over state aid rules and fishing.
He also lashed out at the EU for refusing to ‘intensify’ discussions up to now, saying they wanted to only work on the deal on half the days available.
‘We’d hoped to conclude a Canada-style FTA before the transition ends. As things stand that will not now happen,’ he told MPs.
‘We remain absolutely committed..but there does need to be a fundamental change in approach from the EU if the process is to get back on track.’
Relations between London and Brussels broke down last week after a European Council summit failed to provide a breakthrough on a deal and watered-down commitments to round-the-clock negotiations.
Downing Street had earlier warning it was now or never for a post-Brexit trade deal today as Boris Johnson put UK firms on red alert for a hard split from Brussels at the end of the year.
Officials said that the UK would not return to the bargaining table in 2021 if the transition period ends on December 31 without a compromise.
Mr Gove added: ‘In his statement on Friday, the Prime Minister looked ahead to 2021 as a year of recovery and renewal when this Government will be focused on tackling Covid-19 and building back better.
‘We’re getting ready to do now what the British people asked of us – to forge our own path and not to acquiesce to anyone else’s agenda.
‘And on the negotiations, our door is not closed. It remains ajar and I very much hope the EU will fundamentally change its position but come what may, on December 31, we will take back control.’
After news of Mr Barnier’s intervention got through to him, Mr Gove added: ‘Even while I have been at the despatch box, it has been reported that there has been a constructive move on the part of the European Union and I welcome that, and obviously we need to make sure that we work on the basis of the proposed intensification that they propose.
‘And I prefer to look forward in optimism rather than necessarily to look back in anger.’
Mr Gove met European Commission vice president Maros Sefcovic in London this morning to discuss the two sides’ existing divorce treaty.
Asked how long negotiations could continue, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman told reporters this afternoon: ‘In the event of a free trade agreement, there would need to be a ratification process which is going to take a period of time.
‘We have been repeatedly clear that any agreement needs to be in place before the end of the transition period and we will not be back to negotiate further next year.
‘We must provide certainty to our citizens and businesses and endless prolonged negotiations won’t achieve this.’
Mr Gove said yesterday the door was ‘ajar’ for talks to resume. But Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick risked further souring relations between the two sides as he suggested this morning that the EU was being ‘immature’ by failing to compromise.
Mr Sefcovic repeated today that the EU still wanted a trade deal with Britain but not ‘at any cost’ after Mr Johnson said on Friday there was no point in continuing talks.
‘It has to be a fair agreement for both sides – we are not going to sign an agreement at any cost,’ Sefcovic told reporters after meeting Mr Gove.
‘The European Union is ready to work until the last minute for a good agreement for both parties.’
The Prime Minister has formally activated his no deal plans and is urging UK firms to step up their preparations for a disorderly divorce when the standstill post-Brexit transition period finishes.
Mr Johnson and Mr Gove are telling companies to ‘put in the work now’ so they are ready to trade with the EU without a trade deal from January 1.
But business leaders have lashed out and told ministers they are ‘tired of posturing, cliff edges and deadlines’, telling the Government there is still time for a trade deal to be agreed.
The decision to step up preparation efforts comes as both sides scramble to figure out whether trade talks are officially dead or whether a deal could still be struck.
Formal trade talks are officially off after EU leaders refused to give any ground at a crunch European Council summit last week as they said it was for the UK to make the next move.
Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove (pictured today) met European Commission vice president Maros Sefcovic in London this morning to discuss the two sides’ existing divorce treaty
It came after Boris Johnson (pictured today) warned British businesses ‘time is running out’ for them to prepare for an Australian-style split from the European Union at the end of the year
Mr Sefcovic (pictured today) repeated today that the EU still wanted a trade deal with Britain but not ‘at any cost’ after Mr Johnson said on Friday there was no point in continuing talks
Boris Johnson has formally activated his no trade deal Brexit plans, telling businesses ‘time is running out’ for them to prepare for the end of the transition period in December
Formal Brexit talks are off but Michel Barnier is expected to speak to Lord Frost this afternoon
Mr Johnson had set the summit last week as his deadline for agreeing the outline of a trade accord.
But the two sides remain deadlocked on a number of key issues, including post-Brexit fishing rights.
As a result, the PM said the UK will now prepare for a no trade deal split at the end of the year as he said Britain will only return to the negotiating table if Brussels completely overhauls its approach to the talks.
Mr Johnson and Mr Gove will this week hold calls with business leaders to tell them to get ready for trading with the bloc on basic World Trade Organisation terms from January 1.
The Government today launched its ‘time is running out’ campaign which will see HMRC write to 200,000 traders who trade with the EU to set out the new customs and tax rules.
Mr Gove said: ‘At the end of this year we are leaving the EU Single Market and Customs Union and this means there are both new challenges and new opportunities for businesses.
‘Make no mistake, there are changes coming in just 75 days and time is running out for businesses to act.
‘It is on all of us to put in the work now so that we can embrace the new opportunities available to an independent trading nation with control of its own borders, territorial waters and laws.’
The Government remains under pressure from many business leaders to back down in its row with Brussels and to strike a trade deal.
British Chambers of Commerce Director General Adam Marshall said: ‘Facing the triple threat of a resurgent Coronavirus, tightening restrictions and a disorderly end to the transition period, it is little wonder businesses are struggling to prepare.
‘Many firms will be tired of posturing, cliff edges and deadlines, while others are still grappling with fundamental challenges as a result of the pandemic.
‘More businesses will undoubtedly step up preparations for change over the coming weeks, but many are still facing unanswered Brexit questions that have a big impact on their day to day operations.
‘A UK-EU deal is still both possible and critical. Much may change for business at year end, but a deal would give firms more clarity so that they can plan and adjust.’
Confederation of British Industry deputy director general Josh Hardie warned of a ‘hat-trick of unprecedented challenges’ from the first wave of coronavirus, its resurgence and ‘uncertainty over the UK’s trading relationship with the EU’.
The Government has described leaving the EU without a trade deal as an Australia-style arrangement.
Australia has no comprehensive trade deal with the EU and it also does far less business with Brussels than the UK.
Michael Gove is due to hold face-to-face talks with EU counterpart Maros Sefcovic in London today after he said the door is still ‘ajar’ to talks resuming
A no deal split would see the EU impose tariffs on UK goods, with business groups warning this would damage British firms at a time when they can least afford it because of the coronavirus crisis.
The UK and the EU are now locked in a high stakes game of brinkmanship as each side calls on the other to compromise.
Mr Barnier is expecting to be called by Lord Frost this afternoon, though Number 10 was no more specific than saying the discussion would come early in the week.
Face-to-face talks between Mr Gove and Mr Sefcovic are due to take place this morning.
Mr Jenrick today risked further souring relations as he suggested the bloc was not showing ‘maturity’ or being ‘sensible’ by failing to compromise.
He told Sky News: ‘The EU have not shown the flexibility that we would wish them to have shown so unless something changes, unless they are willing to come back to us and show that degree of flexibility and maturity, we will leave at the end of the year, the transition period, and trade on the sorts of arrangements that Australia has and a number of other countries around the world.
‘That is not our preference but it is an acceptable trading relationship and I think it is important that we move forward because business needs certainty, the country wants to move forward no one wants to delay our exit from the transition period and we have no intention of doing that.’
Mr Jenrick was pushed twice on whether he was suggesting the EU was being ‘immature’ and he did not deny that was the case.
He said: ‘Clearly, in an international pandemic, in a health crisis, we want to ensure that we have the best possible trading relationship with our nearest trading partners.
Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick today suggested the EU was being ‘immature’ by failing to compromise during Brexit talks
‘So it would be sensible at this point for them to go that extra mile to come closer to us on the points that remain for discussion. They haven’t done so yet and that is disappointing.’
Mr Johnson last week accused European leaders of having ‘abandoned the idea of a free trade deal’ and told the UK to ‘get ready’ for leaving without a trade deal.
Lord Frost told Mr Barnier not to travel for planned talks, with the UK calling for a fundamental change in direction of the bloc’s approach.
Mr Gove said yesterday ‘we are ready if required’ to leave without a trade deal, but left room for talks to restart.
Asked if the door is still open to talks, he said: ‘It is ajar; we hope the EU will change their position, we’re certainly not saying that if they do change their position we can’t talk to them.’