Attempts by the UK and EU to restart talks on a post-Brexit trade deal faltered on Tuesday, as Downing Street insisted it was still waiting for Brussels to make the next move by offering fresh concessions.
Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, and David Frost, his UK counterpart, held what British officials called a “constructive discussion” by phone but the two sides are not ready to resume face-to-face talks.
UK prime minister Boris Johnson declared last week that the EU had “ended” talks by suggesting that only the UK needed to make concessions.
On Monday Mr Barnier offered to intensify talks on the basis of shared legal texts but so far the UK has not agreed to reopen the discussions despite time running out to secure a deal before the end of the Brexit transition period on December 31.
Following the latest call between Mr Barnier and Lord Frost — the pair also spoke on Monday — the Frenchman wrote on Twitter: “My message: we should be making the most out of the little time left. Our door remains open.” Privately EU officials were frustrated that the negotiations remained on ice.
Downing Street said: “Lord Frost and Michel Barnier had a constructive discussion. The situation remained as yesterday, and they will remain in contact.”
Despite the apparent impasse, senior British officials expect end of game negotiations on a trade agreement to start again later this week, provided the EU makes it clear that both sides will need to compromise to get a deal.
“There will only be a basis to resume the talks if there is a fundamental change in approach from the EU and an acceptance that movement needs to come from the EU side as well as the UK,” said one.
The state of the negotiating “door” is now the subject of daily updates from both sides, with Michael Gove, cabinet office minister, saying it is “ajar” while Mr Barnier says it is “open”.
EU officials said Brussels had offered the UK joint discussions on legal texts for each area of the negotiations, thereby meeting a key British demand.
“We are keeping a cool head and keep our eye on making a compromise deal,” said one EU official.
London is waiting for Mr Barnier to make it clear that the EU will give ground on the issue of access to UK fisheries, while details of Britain’s new state aid regime continue to thwart progress.
Meanwhile, the House of Lords on Tuesday voted by 395 to 169 for a critical amendment to the government’s controversial UK internal market bill, which ministers have admitted would breach international law.
The amendment, backed by 39 Conservatives, said the legislation “would undermine the rule of law and damage the reputation of the United Kingdom” by unpicking the UK’s withdrawal treaty with the EU, agreed last year by Mr Johnson.
Among those supporting the amendment were seven bishops, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, as well as former Tory leader Michael Howard, former Tory chancellor Ken Clarke, and Richard Keen, who resigned as the government’s advocate-general for Scotland over the bill.
The crucial moment in parliament’s upper house will come in late October and early November when peers could throw out clauses to the bill which override the withdrawal treaty relating to Northern Ireland.
Although the House of Commons would almost certainly vote to reinstate them, peers are likely to frustrate the passage of the bill for some time in protest at what they see as a flagrant breach of international law.
Mr Johnson will hope that he can make progress in talks with the EU on a trade agreement before the parliamentary crunch arrives, allowing him to quietly drop the offending clauses as part of a final deal with Brussels.