Germany has scrapped plans to discuss Brexit at a high-level diplomatic meeting next week because there has not been “any tangible progress” in talks, the Guardian has learned, as Brussels laments a “completely wasted” summer.
EU officials now believe the UK government is prepared to risk a no-deal exit when the transition period comes to an end on 31 December, and will try to pin the blame on Brussels if talks fail.
The German government, which holds the rotating presidency of the EU council, had intended to discuss Brexit during a meeting of EU ambassadors on 2 September but has now dropped the issue. “Since there hasn’t been any tangible progress in EU-UK negotiations, the Brexit item was taken off the agenda,” an EU diplomat said.
The decision matters because Angela Merkel was billed as a potential dealmaker when talks on the UK-EU future relationship reach a crucial stage this autumn.
The German chancellor last week met Emmanuel Macron at the French president’s official residence on the French Riviera, where they discussed the EU’s post-Brexit future. Following last week’s inconclusive round of negotiations, both governments issued near-identical statements calling for “concrete answers” from the British government.
“Over the recent months Franco-German cooperation has gained new traction,” said the EU diplomat, with the two countries having “realigned” on issues including Brexit. “Given this new reality it would be futile to wait for a white knight from Paris or Berlin to come to the rescue.”
Sandro Gozi, an Italian MEP who sits in Macron’s party in the European parliament and was Italy’s Europe minister during the early phase of Brexit talks, said: “I doubt even Merkel or Macron would be able to transform a stalemate into a positive outcome.
“I have always thought – that is my personal position – that no-deal was a real option especially on London’s side … Every day that passes without concrete progress is a day closer to no-deal Brexit.”
Dropping Brexit from next week’s diplomatic agenda is a sign of deepening pessimism in Brussels. “People underestimate how bleak the mood is in the EU negotiation team,” said an EU official who added that time was running out to negotiate a complex legal treaty expected to exceed 400 pages.
“We have had the whole summer completely wasted, a cabinet that doesn’t understand how the negotiations work, a prime minister who, I think, doesn’t understand how the negotiations work – because he is under the wrong impression that he can pull off negotiating at the 11th hour.”
The EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, last week declared he was surprised by the UK “wasting valuable time” as Boris Johnson had told EU leaders in June that he wanted an outline deal by July.
The course said: “If they see it’s not going to work out they are just going to try and make it really acrimonious.”
A UK document leaked to the Sun on Sunday, warning of public disorder, shortages and price hikes in the event of a no-deal Brexit, was perceived in Brussels as a sign of the government’s seriousness about leaving the EU single market and customs union with no agreement.
“More and more people have come to the conclusion that Brexit ideology trumps Brexit pragmatism in the UK government,” the diplomat said. “If the UK really wanted to jump off the Brexit cliff for ideological reasons, there would be no way for the EU to stop this.” If the UK’s negotiating stance became “more pragmatic and realistic”, there was still a chance to save the talks, they added.
For the EU, “pragmatism” means accepting that tariff-free access to the single market necessitates common standards on environment, state aid, worker and consumer protection – a position rejected by the UK.
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With talks set to resume on 7 September, EU sources are increasingly frustrated with the UK chief negotiator, David Frost. “The feeling is that David Frost acts more as a UK messenger then a UK negotiator. If he doesn’t get more negotiating space, talks will remain in dire straits,” said the EU diplomat.
British officials hit back, accusing the EU of slowing progress by insisting that all difficult issues had to be resolved in parallel. “The EU’s insistence that nothing can now progress until we have accepted EU positions on fisheries and state aid policy is a recipe for holding up the whole negotiation at a moment when time is short for both sides,” said a UK source close to negotiations.
“We are also faced with the EU’s frustrating insistence on parallelism, meaning that they will not progress areas apart from these ‘difficult’ ones until we have moved towards their position on them. That’s a sure way to hold up the negotiations. For our part we are ready to knuckle down and get into the detailed discussions of legal texts which is what is needed now. We hope the EU will do likewise.”
Johnson is understood to have full confidence in Frost and the UK negotiating team.