No progress on Brexit, says EU parliament president after meeting PM

By Sam Blewett, Political Correspondent, and Gavin Cordon, Whitehall Editor, PA

The European Parliament’s president has said “no progress” was made during Brexit talks with Boris Johnson in Downing Street.

David Sassoli said he had entered Number 10 on Tuesday hoping to hear proposals that could take negotiations for a new deal forward, but left disappointed.

The blow came as talks to avert a no-deal Brexit were left hanging in the balance amid accusations from No 10 that the EU was making it “essentially impossible” for Britain to leave with an agreement.

“I came here in the confident hope of hearing proposals that could take negotiations forward,” Mr Sassoli said in a statement.

“However, I must note that there has been no progress.”

In the absence of a deal, he warned, Mr Johnson has two options: ask for an extension or a no-deal Brexit.

But any new accord would not be passed by the EU parliament “at any price”, he added, stressing it would not approve of one that did not uphold the Good Friday Agreement.

Downing Street gave its own account of the meeting, with a spokesman saying Mr Johnson reiterated his “do or die” commitment to leave by October 31, even without a deal.

“The Prime Minister set out how there is little time remaining to negotiate a new agreement, and so we need to move quickly and work together to agree a deal,” the spokesman added.

The PM had earlier spoken to Irish premier Leo Varadkar by telephone for about 40 minutes and they pledged to hold crunch talks.

“Both sides strongly reiterated their desire to reach a Brexit deal,” a Downing Street spokesman said. “They hope to meet in person later this week.”

Earlier there was fury in Brussels following a series of No 10 briefings claiming German Chancellor Angela Merkel had made clear a deal was now “overwhelmingly unlikely”.

No 10 sources claimed Mrs Merkel had told the Prime Minister that Britain could not leave the EU unless it was prepared to leave Northern Ireland behind in a permanent customs union.

European Council president Donald Tusk accused Mr Johnson of engaging in a “stupid blame game” ahead of next week’s crucial EU summit.

“At stake is the future of Europe and the UK as well as the security and interests of our people,” he tweeted.

“You don’t want a deal, you don’t want an extension, you don’t want to revoke, quo vadis (where are you going)?”

Angela Merkel is said to have told Boris Johnson that a deal is ‘overwhelmingly unlikely’ (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

Labour said the Prime Minister was guilty of a “cynical” attempt to “sabotage” the talks, saying his strategy had always been to pursue a no-deal break.

The hardball tactics from No 10 even alarmed some ministers, after sources warned Britain could break off security co-operation with the EU if it was prevented from leaving on October 31 as Mr Johnson has promised.

Northern Ireland Secretary Julian Smith tweeted that “any threat on withdrawing security co-operation with Ireland is unacceptable”.

The dramatic escalation in the war of words between Brussels and London, followed a telephone call on Tuesday between Mr Johnson and Mrs Merkel to discuss the latest UK proposal to resolve the deadlock over the Northern Ireland backstop.

EU leaders have dismissed the plan as the basis for a settlement as it would mean the return of customs checks on the island of Ireland, albeit taking place well away from the border between the North and the Republic.

A No 10 source said Mrs Merkel had told the Prime Minister Ireland must at least have a veto on Northern Ireland leaving the EU with the rest of the UK.

“It was a very useful clarifying moment in all sorts of ways,” the unnamed source, quoted by Sky News, said.

“If this represents a new established position, then it means a deal is essentially impossible, not just now but ever.”

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman acknowledged there had been a “frank exchange” with Mrs Merkel and that the talks had reached a “critical point”, but refused to be drawn any further on the “source” claims.

The German government refused to comment on what it said were “confidential conversations”.

However there was said to be surprise among diplomats in Brussels at Mrs Merkel’s reported comments, as she has consistently stressed her commitment to achieving a deal.

The row comes with time running out if EU leaders are to sign off on a deal at their next two-day summit on October 17 and 18.

It followed a briefing to The Spectator magazine, also citing a contact in No 10, warning the Government could do “all sorts of things” to get around the so-called Benn Act, which requires the Prime Minister to seek a further Brexit delay if he cannot get a deal by October 19.

The source – widely thought to Mr Johnson’s chief adviser Dominic Cummings – said it would treat any support by EU leaders for a new extension as “hostile interference” in UK politics, and that future defence and security co-operation would “inevitably” be affected.

Fine Gael parliamentary meeting
Irish deputy premier Simon Coveney has said the EU is working flat out to get a deal (Niall Carson/PA)

“We won’t engage in further talks, we obviously won’t given any undertakings about co-operative behaviour, everything to do with ‘duty of sincere cooperation’ will be in the toilet,” the source said.

Irish deputy premier Simon Coveney said there was “a lot of misinformation going around” and that the Irish government and the EU were working “flat out” to get a deal.

“However, that deal cannot come at any cost. The British Government has responsibilities on the island of Ireland,” he said.

However DUP leader Arlene Foster said Mrs Merkel’s reported comments showed the true objective of the EU and Dublin was to permanently “trap” Northern Ireland in a customs union.