The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, told his UK counterpart on Monday that Brussels is prepared to begin discussing detailed legal treaty texts as the bloc seeks to revive stalled talks over a trade deal.
Mr Barnier said on Twitter that he had spoken to David Frost and that Brussels was ready to “intensify” talks on the basis of legal texts. He added that the EU was now waiting for Britain’s reaction.
The UK has for weeks complained that the EU has been unwilling to thrash out the detailed legal language needed to unlock a deal. For its part, the European Commission has said it wants to identify landing zones on the key areas of disagreement between the two sides before getting down to detailed joint drafting.
Last week UK prime minister Boris Johnson called a halt to talks and said there had to be a fundamental change of position by the EU if discussions were to continue. While Mr Barnier had already announced that negotiations would take place this week in London, Mr Johnson said there was no point in the Frenchman coming unless the EU made an offer that respected the UK as an independent country.
Mr Barnier’s comments came as Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove told MPs that Britain was “increasingly well” prepared to exit the transition period without a trade deal.
On hearing Mr Barnier’s remarks, which came while he was at the despatch box in parliament, Mr Gove said: “It has been reported that there has been a constructive move on the part of the European Union and I welcome that.
“I prefer to look forward in optimism rather than look back in anger,” Mr Gove said.
Mr Gove earlier reiterated the UK’s complaint that during negotiations the EU had refused to discuss legal texts, as he also hit out at a decision by EU diplomats to drop a reference to the intensification of talks from a statement adopted by EU leaders at a summit last week.
“Although some attempts were made to soften this message by some EU leaders, the European Council reaffirmed those conclusions as authoritative,” Mr Gove told the House of Commons.
EU diplomats insist that Britain wilfully misconstrued the outcome of the summit, noting the clear signals of a willingness to compromise made by leaders such as Germany’s Angela Merkel.
Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte on Friday acknowledged communication mis-steps around the conclusions, including that they could give the false impression that the EU was expecting the UK to make all the concessions in the talks.
Mr Gove insisted that Britain’s door was “still ajar” for talks with the EU on a trade agreement, but said the EU would have to fundamentally shift its position.
“Leaving the EU on Australian terms is an outcome for which we are increasingly well prepared,” Mr Gove claimed, referring to a basic trade deal based on World Trade Organization terms. However, a poll of UK businesses last week showed that more than half were not fully ready for new border controls after December 31.
Mr Gove said that talks on Monday with EU vice-president Maros Sefcovic on implementing last year’s Brexit divorce deal — including the Northern Ireland protocol, designed to prevent a hard border on Ireland — had been “very constructive”, suggesting relations between London and Brussels had not completely broken down.