Efforts to avert a no-deal Brexit were in fresh crisis on Thursday as Downing Street admitted it does not know if EU negotiator Michel Barnier will turn up for face-to-face talks due to resume on Friday.
Mr Barnier was expected in London in the evening, ahead of talks with Boris Johnson’s chief negotiator David Frost, with just 34 days to go to the deadline for a deal.
But reports suggest that he has told Lord Frost that he will pull out of this weekend’s talks unless there is a major shift in negotiating stance from the UK.
And today, Mr Johnson’s official spokesperson was unable to say whether the discussions would go ahead.
Asked if Mr Barnier was expected in London, the spokesperson said: “That is a matter for the EU and a decision for them to take.”
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Approached by The Independent, Mr Barnier’s office said it was currently unable to confirm his travel plans.
Brussels is pushing the UK for concessions on access to British fishing waters, with a possible 10-year review floated in talks conducted by video link this week.
But Mr Johnson told the House of Commons on Wednesday that his position had not moved, offering a “guarantee” that British sovereignty will be protected for the whole UK as the transition to Brexit is completed on 31 December.
“Our position on fish has not changed,” said the PM.
“We will only be able to make progress if the EU accepts the reality that we must be able to control access to our waters. It is very important at this stage to emphasise that.”
Failure to reach agreement on a free trade deal would mean imports and exports to continental Europe falling under disadvantageous World Trade Organisations tariffs and red tape.
The Office for Budget Responsibility has calculated that a no-deal Brexit of this sort – which Mr Johnson refers to as an Australian-style arrangement, because Australia has no trade deal with the EU – would knock 2 percentage points off GDP in 2021.
The PM’s spokesperson told reporters that Mr Johnson still expected the UK economy to thrive with or without a deal, but refused to comment on whether he believed his own official forecasters to be mistaken in their analysis.
“Negotiations continue virtually,” said the spokesperson. “We want them to resume face-to-face towards the end of the week, but that is dependent on the EU and if they decide to travel.”
He made clear that London expects talks to continue remotely, even if Mr Barnier does not arrive in person.
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