Brussels has responded with bafflement to Boris Johnson’s claims that progress is being made in the Brexit talks, with EU officials saying discussions are going nowhere.
The prime minister and his cabinet have insisted that the outlines of a deal are in the making and that attempts by MPs to rule out a no-deal departure will kill that momentum.
However, EU officials said that nearly two weeks after Johnson met the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, no alternatives to the Northern Irish backstop had been tabled. Instead, there had been a renewed clash over Brussels’ need for an immediately legally operable solution for the border.
EU diplomats briefed by a European commission negotiator about the most recent talks in Brussels with the prime minister’s envoy, David Frost, were told on Tuesday that a no-deal Brexit has never been more likely given the lack of proposals from Downing Street.
“There was literally nothing on the table, not even a sketch of what the solution could look like,” said an EU official familiar with the latest talks with the British government.
In response to a question from Richard Corbett, the leader of Labour’s MEPs, the Finnish government, which holds the rolling presidency of the EU, confirmed that no new proposals had been tabled by the British government.
The commission will launch a fresh attempt to get European businesses ready for a no-deal on Wednesday by warning that the proximity to 31 October and “the political situation in the UK have increased the risk” that Britain will crash out of the EU without a deal.
It is understood the European commission official insisted on Tuesday to EU diplomats that Brussels was open to ideas from Downing Street, “but on the other hand we have been waiting for quite a while for different ideas and proposals and these haven’t come forward”.
Downing Street has rejected the claims by rebel Conservative MPs including the former chancellor Philip Hammond that it is not taking the talks seriously, with Johnson’s spokesman insisting progress was being made. However, he declined to say when the UK might present concrete proposals on a replacement for the backstop.
The Guardian understands Johnson’s senior EU adviser, David Frost, has so far highlighted the legal articles relating to the trade in goods that the government wants removed from the Irish protocol in the withdrawal agreement.
Frost has suggested that “maximum facilitation” technology could provide a solution to the problem of avoiding a hard border, and insisted that there would need to be a clean break from the EU’s structures. The government insists parliament will not accept a deal that would involve, even temporarily, the whole of the UK staying in a customs union and Northern Ireland remaining in the single market.
EU sources said the talks so far had offered little confidence that any proposals made by London would be close to acceptable to the European commission, which wants to ensure frictionless trade on the island of Ireland in all circumstances, and to maintain the all-Ireland economy as it is today. “Where have these people been for the last two years?” asked one EU official.
Johnson’s adviser had been expected to table some proposals on an alternative way forward on Wednesday but sources said they believed the prime minister would “conveniently” use the developments in Westminster to hold off.
“Frost has said that the government wants a simple Canada-style free trade deal which makes it all the more important to have the backstop maintaining the all-Ireland economy because that sort of free trade deal in the future will not go anywhere near to providing frictionless trade,” one EU diplomat said.
Downing Street has denied claims that Johnson’s strategist, Dominic Cummings privately described the talks in Brussels as a “sham”, but EU officials are increasingly concerned that this is the case.
Asked if No 10 was simply running down the clock before a no-deal exit on 31 October, Johnson’s spokesman said: “Absolutely not. You have public remarks from President Macron, Chancellor Merkel and from President Tusk. We were told very firmly at the beginning that there could be no discussions. Now EU leaders have said they are willing to work with us on trying to find solutions.”
But asked when the UK might present ideas for replacing the backstop with “alternative arrangements”, the spokesman declined to say, adding: “We’re having conversations with the EU all the time. David Frost will be having more conversations this week.”
Johnson’s letter to the European council president, Donald Tusk earlier this summer – with its suggestion to replace the backstop with a promise to agree alternative arrangements later – has been interpreted by one Brussels insider as saying: “We haven’t got any ideas, trust us”. A similar approach by Theresa May failed, as the EU insisted on a guaranteed fallback plan to manage the Irish border.
“This is a government that seems to be extremely comfortable with no deal,” one official said. “In that context it is normal to ask yourself:” what are they really going after? Are they serious and engaging in the content of what we are trying to achieve or are they trying to run down the clock?”
EU insiders are sceptical that a solution that has eluded experts for two years can be devised in a few weeks. “Boris Johnson hasn’t tabled a concrete plan … but the British government tells us right now that it’s possible to find another solution and we say ‘OK, perfect, great’,” said an EU diplomat. “The ball is in London’s court and it’s something Britain has to come forward with.”
A commission spokesman suggested that the progress made so far had been purely in terms of process through an increase in the number of meetings with the British side.