Brexit: How last-minute ‘ambush’ by Michel Barnier forced Boris to head to Brussels this week

More than four years ago, Britain voted to take back control. Last night Boris Johnson decided he’d have to do it in person.

Wary of the tactics used to humiliate Theresa May, the Prime Minister has been reluctant to travel to Brussels. His predecessor was frequently invited to EU events, only for the bloc’s leaders to publicly reject her plans.

But after his chief negotiator warned talks were on the brink of collapse – and two lengthy phone calls to the European Commission president failed to break the deadlock – Mr Johnson accepted that the benefits of going to Brussels now outweighed the risks.

‘Anyone who has been involved in negotiations knows that sometimes you have got to look each other in the eyes,’ an insider said yesterday. ‘There is a limit to how far you can get just talking on the phone. But this is the last step.’

The move comes after the EU’s chief negotiator, dropped a diplomatic bombshell that scuppered talks and brought them to the brink of collapse.  

On Thursday afternoon, Michel Barnier re-tabled old demands for the UK to respect not just existing EU laws, but all laws that the bloc might pass in the future. 

The ‘repackaged’ plan would bind Britain to EU rules ‘in perpetuity’, on pain of ‘lightning’ tariffs that could be imposed on UK exports unilaterally by Brussels if they digressed from EU labour and environmental standards.

The move – blamed by Downing Street on Emmanuel Macron – dismayed Britain’s chief negotiator, Lord Frost, who knew the PM would never accept it.  

After his chief negotiator warned talks were on the brink of collapse Mr Johnson (pictured) accepted that the benefits of going to Brussels now outweighed the risks.

After his chief negotiator warned talks were on the brink of collapse Mr Johnson (pictured) accepted that the benefits of going to Brussels now outweighed the risks.

Wary of the tactics used to humiliate Theresa May, Boris Johnson has been reluctant to travel to Brussels. But after his chief negotiator warned talks were on the brink of collapse – and two lengthy phone calls to the European Commission president failed to break the deadlock – Mr Johnson accepted that the benefits of going to Brussels now outweighed the risks

The move comes after days of fruitless talks following a diplomatic bombshell from Michel Barnier (pictured) last week

The move comes after days of fruitless talks following a diplomatic bombshell from Michel Barnier (pictured) last week

Two lengthy phone calls to the European Commission president (pictured) failed to break the deadlock

Two lengthy phone calls to the European Commission president (pictured) failed to break the deadlock

On Thursday afternoon, Michel Barnier re-tabled old demands for the UK to respect not just existing EU laws, but all laws that the bloc might pass in the future. He was reportedly furious that his boss Ursula von der Leyen had gone soft on Britain while he was self-isolating

Mr Barnier had been forced to step back from Brexit negotiations after one of his aides tested positive for coronavirus.

While he self-isolated, his boss Ursula von der Leyen took over talks and went soft on Britain, making concessions on fisheries and the ‘level playing field’.

British sources told the Times that Mr Barnier was furious the EU was trying to get a deal with the UK ‘at whatever’ cost – setting the scene for a showdown between France and Germany over how much to concede to Britain. 

France began the war of words, with its permanent representative to Brussels, Philippe Léglise-Costa, accusing Germany of allowing Mrs von der Leyen to give too much away during negotiations.

He then reportedly told other ‘doveish’ member states including Sweden that France would veto any deal agreed with Britain unless London made concessions and Mr Barnier was allowed to toughen up the EU’s position. 

Germany hit back at the French, the Dutch and others for being ‘jittery’. 

A France-led alliance of nations which included Spain, Italy, Denmark and the Netherlands put pressure on Germany, Austria and Sweden, and ultimately forced the Commission to suddenly toughen its stance with Britain on Thursday.    

A UK source told the paper: ‘We went from a position on Thursday morning where we thought we could see our way through to a deal by the weekend to one where it looked almost impossible to see how we’d ever get a deal.’    

Mr Johnson had been preparing to agree a ‘non-regression’ clause that would see the UK maintain existing standards on issues such as state aid, workers’ rights and the environment.

With Michael Gove having travelled to Brussels yesterday, rumours continued to swirl about possible compromise

With Michael Gove having travelled to Brussels yesterday, rumours continued to swirl about possible compromise

With Michael Gove having travelled to Brussels yesterday, rumours continued to swirl about possible compromise  

However, sources said the demand for the UK to align with future EU regulations was ‘a complete non-starter’.

Lord Frost was so alarmed that he broke off from the talks in a dingy conference room in the Business Department – dubbed ‘the Cave’ – to brief the PM in person.

Mr Johnson was later heard singing Waltzing Matilda in his office in an apparent reference to trading with the EU on Australian-style terms – No 10 code for No Deal.

The weekend saw the Chief Whip Mark Spencer bombarded with messages from Tories urging Mr Johnson not to back down.

Eurosceptic MP Andrew Bridgen warned publicly that the PM would be ‘finished’ if he failed to protect British sovereignty.

UK officials were quick to point the finger at Mr Macron for torpedoing talks that had seemed destined for success just days earlier.

Environment Secretary George Eustice admitted: ‘There’s no denying that the end of last week was quite a setback.’

One source said: ‘At the start of the week we saw Macron agitating with other EU capitals that they were giving away too much.

On Saturday the PM spent an hour on the phone to Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission

On Saturday the PM spent an hour on the phone to Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission

On Saturday the PM spent an hour on the phone to Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission

‘Then you see Barnier bringing this [clause] back and the whole process goes backwards. I think everyone can join the dots.

‘We want a deal but it has to be on the basis that we are a sovereign country again. Some people still seem to be struggling with the concept that we are going to be an independent country setting our own rules. If it stays like that there will be no deal.’

On Saturday the PM spent an hour on the phone to Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission.

The call was by all accounts cordial but unproductive.

Lord Frost and his team were soon back at London’s St Pancras station, boarding the Eurostar for another round of face-to-face talks.

Amid growing signs of tension on the EU side, Dutch sources briefed the media that the bloc was preparing to drop France’s hardline demands on fishing – only for the claim to be denied by both sides.

With Michael Gove having travelled to Brussels yesterday, rumours continued to swirl about possible compromises.

Mr Johnson, meanwhile, got to grips with a crab on a walkabout in his constituency with his London mayoral candidate Shaun Bailey.

Later he spent another 40 minutes on the phone with Mrs von der Leyen – but this call also yielded no significant results.

Mr Johnson had attempted to smooth the way to a deal by offering to drop controversial measures relating to Northern Ireland, which ministers admit would ‘break international law’ by going against parts of last year’s Withdrawal Agreement. The move appeared to have no effect.

‘There has not been any progress since Friday,’ said one source close to the negotiations.

‘It is clear that the current process has got to the end of the road – there are only so many times that negotiators can go round the same issues without some fresh political input.

‘We still think we can get a deal but there is a very real chance that we might not got there.’

‘We have made no tangible progress,’ No 10 said last night. ‘It’s clear this must now continue politically.’

Boris Johnson will head to Brussels THIS WEEK in a last-ditch bid to save Brexit by taking control of the trade negotiations himself

By Jason Groves in London and James Franey in Brussels for The Daily Mail

Boris Johnson will head to Brussels this week in a last-ditch bid to save the Brexit talks.

In a high-stakes gamble, the Prime Minister will take personal charge of trade negotiations that appear to be running out of road, and hold talks with European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen in the hope of breaking the deadlock.

Mr Johnson’s decision to travel to Brussels – probably tomorrow – came after a second lengthy phone call with Miss von der Leyen in 48 hours failed to produce a breakthrough.

In a joint statement following the 40-minute call last night, the two leaders said EU negotiator Michel Barnier and the UK’s David Frost will be asked to prepare an overview of the ‘remaining differences’ ahead of the crunch meeting. 

They added: ‘We agreed that the conditions for finalising an agreement are not there, due to the remaining significant differences on three critical issues: level playing field, governance and fisheries.

Boris Johnson (pictured speaking to European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen today) will head to Brussels this week in a last-ditch bid to save the Brexit talks

Boris Johnson (pictured speaking to European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen today) will head to Brussels this week in a last-ditch bid to save the Brexit talks

Boris Johnson (pictured speaking to European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen today) will head to Brussels this week in a last-ditch bid to save the Brexit talks

‘We asked our chief negotiators and their teams to prepare an overview of the remaining differences to be discussed in a physical meeting in Brussels.’

Downing Street declined to say when Mr Johnson would travel to Brussels. But sources said it was unlikely to be today, and insisted the PM would not gatecrash a summit of EU leaders in Brussels due on Thursday and Friday – leaving tomorrow as the most likely option. 

Mr Barnier yesterday told MEPs that tomorrow was the final deadline for a deal.

Earlier, Mr Johnson offered an olive branch to the EU by saying he would drop controversial measures in the Internal Market Bill, which break last year’s Brexit deal on issues relating to Northern Ireland.

But with time running out before the end of the Brexit transition this month, ministers remained downbeat about the prospect of a deal.

In a high-stakes gamble, the Prime Minister will take personal charge of trade negotiations that appear to be running out of road, and hold talks with European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen (pictured) in the hope of breaking the deadlock

In a high-stakes gamble, the Prime Minister will take personal charge of trade negotiations that appear to be running out of road, and hold talks with European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen (pictured) in the hope of breaking the deadlock

In a high-stakes gamble, the Prime Minister will take personal charge of trade negotiations that appear to be running out of road, and hold talks with European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen (pictured) in the hope of breaking the deadlock

One senior Government source said there remained ‘every chance’ of No Deal, adding: ‘Talks are in the same position now as they were on Friday. We have made no tangible progress. It’s clear this must now continue politically. Whilst we do not consider this process to be closed, things are looking very tricky and there’s every chance we are not going to get there.’

Another source flatly denied suggestions Mr Johnson was travelling to sign off a deal that is already all-but there, adding: ‘Anyone who thinks this is some sort of victory lap has no idea what is going on.’

The prospect of Mr Johnson trying to strike a grand bargain on Brexit is likely to alarm some Tory Eurosceptics.

One MP warned Mr Johnson against capitulating to the EU’s demands that Britain remain tied to Brussels regulations for ever, adding: ‘If the PM goes to EU summit with that in mind, he will come back as Neville Chamberlain, instead of Winston Churchill.’

Mr Johnson’s decision to travel to Brussels – probably tomorrow – came after a second lengthy phone call with Miss von der Leyen (pictured) in 48 hours failed to produce a breakthrough

Progress towards a deal was torpedoed last week after French president Emmanuel Macron pressured Mr Barnier to toughen his stance.

Mr Barnier is demanding that EU trawlers accept only modest cuts to their quotas in British waters, and that these are phased in over ten years – a request branded ‘ludicrous’ by Environment Secretary George Eustice.

On the wider issue of the so-called ‘level playing field’, Mr Johnson has signalled he is willing to guarantee that existing EU standards on things such as state aid subsidies, workers’ rights and the environment will not be cut after Brexit.

But Mr Barnier last week upped the EU’s demands to require the UK to also stay in line with regulations that Brussels passes in the future – a request branded ‘completely unacceptable’ by No 10.

The EU is also insisting on the right to levy ‘lightning tariffs’ on the UK if it judges that Britain has diverged too far from Brussels regulations. Mr Macron has warned he is ready to veto any deal he deems unacceptable. But German Chancellor Angela Merkel has made clear she wants agreement.

In a joint statement following the 40-minute call last night, the two leaders said EU negotiator Michel Barnier (pictured) and the UK's David Frost will be asked to prepare an overview of the 'remaining differences' ahead of the crunch meeting

In a joint statement following the 40-minute call last night, the two leaders said EU negotiator Michel Barnier (pictured) and the UK's David Frost will be asked to prepare an overview of the 'remaining differences' ahead of the crunch meeting

Britain's Chief Negotiator of Task Force Europe David Frost

Britain's Chief Negotiator of Task Force Europe David Frost

In a joint statement following the 40-minute call last night, the two leaders said EU negotiator Michel Barnier (left) and the UK’s David Frost (right) will be asked to prepare an overview of the ‘remaining differences’ ahead of the crunch meeting

Both leaders have been in close contact with Miss von der Leyen about tactics in recent days, but sources said neither was currently willing to discuss the deal directly with Mr Johnson.

Both sides yesterday acknowledged that the talks were in crisis. Cabinet Office minister Penny Mordaunt told MPs that talks were at a ‘critical moment’, with the level playing field being the ‘most difficult’ issue.

Mr Barnier told MEPs the two sides were facing ‘huge problems’, adding: ‘When it comes to timing, we are in the end game. In any event there will be a decision by Thursday. So let’s say on Wednesday, we cannot go beyond that. Be it negative or positive.’

Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney said: ‘Having heard from Michel Barnier this morning, really the news is very downbeat. I would say he is very gloomy.’

No Deal would mean tariffs on goods traded between the UK and EU. Ministers are also worried about the prospect of severe disruption to Channel crossings.

One Cabinet source said: ‘The possibility of chaos on the Channel crossing has been underpriced.’

The pound fell sharply on the gloomy signals emerging from both camps before recovering most of its value in the wake of the announcement of the meeting between Mr Johnson and Miss von der Leyen.

In the Commons, senior Tories urged the PM not to abandon his negotiating position.

Former Cabinet minister Liam Fox said: ‘We all want to see a deal but the difficulties are not really about trade… but EU politics.

‘It’s about ensuring no country follows the United Kingdom in exercising their legal powers to leave the European Union, and the desire of some in the EU to limit the competitive potential of post-Brexit Britain.’

Fellow Tory Philip Davies urged the PM to ‘stand firm in these negotiations and deliver on the Brexit so many people voted for’.

Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner said: ‘A year after he told the British people his deal was ‘oven-ready’, the fact he is making a last-dash trip to Brussels demonstrates the scale of his failure.’  

Link hienalouca.com

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