The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator said today he was neither optimistic nor pessimistic that a new deal could be struck between Brussels and Britain by the October 31 deadline.
But he insisted he was ‘determined’ to try to make sure the two sides split on good terms as he said ‘lots of work’ would have to be done in the coming days and weeks to make that happen.
His comments came as Mark Rutte, the Dutch prime minister, said he believed a disorderly divorce on Halloween could still be avoided.
Mr Barnier met with Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay in Brussels this morning as they tried to find a way forward.
But speaking after the meeting Mr Barnier appeared more downbeat on the prospects of a deal than Jean-Claude Juncker, the outgoing president of the European Commission, who said yesterday ‘we can have a deal’ by October 31.
Mr Barnier said the EU is ‘always ready to examine on an objective basis any proposal’ put forward by the UK.
He then proceeded to set a high bar for Mr Johnson if the Prime Minister is to achieve his goal of deleting the backstop from the Brexit divorce deal.
Michel Barnier, pictured in Brussels today as he took part in talks with Stephen Barclay, said any replacement for the backstop must provide the same level of protection against a hard border as the existing protocol
Mr Barclay left the talks in a positive mood as he said there was now ‘momentum’ building ahead of the October 31 Brexit deadline
Dublin warns of No Deal Brexit ‘civil unrest’
Irish deputy PM Simon Coveney today warned that No Deal would mean ‘civil unrest’ as he poured cold water on ‘spin’ about progress in talks.
Mr Coveney admitted the ‘mood music’ had improved, but warned the EU still had not seen any ‘serious proposals’ from the UK – saying the two sides were ‘not close to a deal’.
He also delivered a grim portrayal of the consequences of crashing out, insisting it was ‘lose-lose’ and there would be problems ‘managing civil unrest around the border’.
Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Mr Coveney said: ‘There are serious problems that arise because of the change in approach by the British Prime Minister – asking to remove a very significant section within the Withdrawal Agreement without any serious proposals as to how you solve those problems is not going to be the basis for an agreement.’
He said: ‘But this proposal of the UK must reach all of the objectives of the backstop: To protect the peace in Ireland, to protect the all-Ireland economy and also to protect the consumers and the businesses of the EU and the single market.
‘What I can say after my very cordial meeting with Steve Barclay and his team, lots of work has to be done in the next few days.
‘Brexit is a school of patience but we are still ready to reach an agreement.
‘You ask me if I am optimistic or pessimistic… the famous grandfather of the EU, Jean Monnet, said “I am not optimistic, I am not pessimistic, I am still determined”.’
Mr Rutte today sounded more optimistic about the prospects of a deal being done as he urged the UK to bring forward detailed documents setting out how to replace the backstop.
He said: ‘With a few nights of hard work a lot can be done, but it all starts with the will to agree.
‘I can only respond to real, specific proposals.’
What would an ‘agrifood zone’ on the island of Ireland mean?
A key plank of Boris Johnson’s plan for breaking the Brexit deadlock would be an ‘agrifood zone’ on the island of Ireland.
There is already a single zone between Nothern Ireland and the Republic, meaning all livestock coming from Britain is checked on entry.
Extending that to food standards would involve checking more products at Northern Ireland ports.
However, the ‘regulatory’ border in the Irish Sea would fall short of the provisions in the existing backstop plan, which would see Ulster remain within the EU’s customs jurisdiction as well.
Britain has submitted three papers to Brussels outlining broad ideas about how to replace the backstop but it is yet to bring forward an official offer.
Mr Barclay said today he believed there was now ‘momentum’ building ahead of the Halloween deadline and that with a ‘shared sense of purpose’ a No Deal split could be avoided.
‘There is significant work still to do but there are serious discussions that are taking place,’ he said after the talks.
‘We are moving forward with momentum, talks will continue next week between the technical teams.’
The UK is under growing pressure to submit formal proposals on how it intends to replace the Irish border insurance policy.
Mr Johnson has repeatedly described the backstop protocol as ‘anti-democratic’ and insisted he will not agree to a deal which includes it.
A number of EU leaders have suggested the UK’s backstop proposals must be handed over to the bloc by the end of September if there is to be a deal.
But Downing Street said it will only make the proposals available to the EU ‘when we are ready’.
Irish deputy prime minister Simon Coveney told the BBC this morning there were still ‘serious problems’ over how to handle the Irish border issue once Britain leaves the EU.
The backstop was included in the original Brexit deal as a last resort measure to be used in the event no overall trade deal has been struck by the two sides by the end of the transition period.
It would effectively see existing EU rules on customs kept in place to ensure frictionless trade on the island of Ireland could continue and prevent the return of a hard border.
But Brexiteers hate it because if implemented it would last indefinitely, restrict the UK’s ability to strike its own trade deal and getting out of it would require the agreement of both sides.