Britain and the EU on Monday began to repair last week’s rift over post-Brexit trade talks, increasing hopes that intense face-to-face negotiations could resume this week in London.
Following a phone call with the UK’s chief Brexit negotiator David Frost, Michel Barnier, chief EU negotiator, said on Twitter that Brussels was prepared to begin discussing detailed legal treaty texts and was ready to “intensify” the talks, signalling the possible end-game in the fraught negotiations.
Last Friday Downing Street said the talks were “over”, but British officials welcomed Mr Barnier’s move and said talks could resume if the EU accepted that both sides needed to compromise to reach a deal.
Following a summit last week, EU leaders including Germany’s Angela Merkel and French president Emmanuel Macron publicly indicated a willingness to compromise, in effect giving the signal the UK is insisting on.
One senior British official said: “We are hoping that talks can begin again in the second half of this week.” Mr Barnier and Lord Frost are expected to talk again by phone in the next 48 hours.
Lord Frost tweeted after his “constructive” talks with Mr Barnier on Monday: “The EU still needs to make a fundamental change in approach to the talks and make clear it has done so. We will stay in close touch.”
Downing Street said that Mr Barnier’s offer of intensified talks based on legal texts was “what would be expected at this stage in a negotiation”, but Michael Gove, cabinet office minister, also called it “constructive”.
With less than three months to the end of the Brexit transition period on December 31, the UK has for weeks complained that the EU has been unwilling to thrash out the detailed legal language needed to unlock a deal.
For its part, the European Commission had said it wanted to identify landing zones on the key areas of disagreement between the two sides before getting down to detailed joint drafting.
While Mr Barnier had already announced that negotiations would take place this week in London, Mr Johnson said last week there was no point in the Frenchman coming unless the EU made an offer that respected the UK as an independent country.
The UK said at the time it was frustrated at conclusions issued at the end of last week’s two-day summit which suggested talks could only progress if Britain compromised.
But Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte on Friday acknowledged communication mis-steps around the conclusions, including that they could give the false impression that the EU was expecting the UK to make all the concessions in the talks.
Mr Gove told MPs on Monday that Britain’s door was “still ajar” for talks with the EU on a trade agreement, but said the EU would have to fundamentally shift its position.
“Leaving the EU on Australian terms is an outcome for which we are increasingly well prepared,” Mr Gove claimed, referring to a basic trade deal based on World Trade Organization terms.
However, a poll of UK businesses last week showed that more than half were not fully ready for new border controls after December 31.
Mr Gove said that talks on Monday with EU vice-president Maros Sefcovic on implementing last year’s Brexit divorce deal — including the Northern Ireland protocol, designed to prevent a hard border on Ireland — had been “very constructive”, suggesting relations between London and Brussels had not broken down.
During exchanges in the House of Commons, former prime minister Theresa May warned that a “no deal” exit from the transition period would endanger security co-operation with the EU. When Mr Gove claimed security could be improved in such circumstances, Mrs May could be seen exclaiming “What?” in astonishment.
Earlier Alok Sharma, business secretary, admitted on LBC that the difference between a no-deal exit and an exit on “Australian terms” — Mr Johnson’s preferred phrase — was one of “semantics.