Boris Johnson is facing the momentous decision of whether to walk out on Brexit trade talks, after the EU offered to extend them beyond the prime minister’s deadline to the end of October.
Chief negotiator Michel Barnier told reporters in Brussels that he had proposed a two-week extension to negotiations, offering to work through the weekend if necessary to get an agreement.
“I can confirm that we’re available, we shall remain available until the last possible day,” he said, after a meeting of EU leaders in the Belgian capital to discuss the issue.
“The negotiations aren’t over, we want to give these negotiations every chance of being successful to give every chance of agreement.”
The prime minister, who would trigger a no-deal Brexit if he decides to refuse the offer, this week said he would wait for the conclusions of the summit before making a decision about whether to extend on Friday.
He faces the choice amid a growing revolt at home over his handling of the Covid-19 crisis, and with early signs that a second wave of the pandemic is about to hit the UK.
But a statement prepared by EU leaders after their discussion gave no hint of compromise, and was even downgraded from an earlier draft that promised “intensified” discussions, in case the wrong message was sent. To hammer the point home, the leaders said it was up to the UK to change its position.
“As of tomorrow I will be speaking with my counterpart David Frost [the UK chief negotiator],” Mr Barnier told reporters.
“On Monday we'll be in London for the full week, including the weekend if necessary, the following week in Brussels.
“That's what I have proposed to the British team to negotiate in the short space of time still left to us, so that we can negotiate this agreement through to the end of October.”
Lord Frost, the UK’s chief negotiator, said he was “disappointed” by the outcome of the summit. He had previously been expected to advise the prime minister to extend discussions.
The negotiator, who was recently given a seat in the House of Lords by Boris Johnson, said he was “surprised by the suggestion that to get an agreement all future moves must come from UK”, dubbing it an “unusual approach to conducting a negotiation”.
Speaking alongside European Council president Charles Michel, Mr Barnier said that sticking points remain in three perennial areas: the level playing field on regulations, governance of any deal, and fisheries.
Of these, the two sides appear to be furthest apart on fisheries, where neither side wants to give ground in a politically charged atmosphere. Some movement appears to have been made on the question of the level playing field, which has largely boiled down to an argument about whether the UK will have freedom to give more state aid to companies after it leaves the single market.
The issue of governance has become particularly important following a UK decision to override parts of the Brexit withdrawal agreement with its Internal Market Bill, an episode has led some EU member states to call for stronger enforcement measures for any future deal, diplomats say.
Missing from the press conference lineup was Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president. Ms Von der Leyen arrived at the summit as normal but had to leave near the beginning to self-isolate, after one of her team tested positive.
Mr Johnson is expected to make his announcement on whether talks will continue on Friday, after the conclusion of the summit’s second day. If he decides to end talks there, the UK will crash out of the single market and customs union on 31 December with nothing to replace them. The government has taken to referring to the eventuality as an “Australia-style Brexit”.
A UK government spokesperson said of the meeting’s results: “As the PM made clear on his call with the EU presidents [on Wednesday night], he will reflect on the outcome of the European Council before setting out the UK’s next steps, in light of his statement of 7 September.”