Brussels does not believe Boris Johnson will walk out on the Brexit talks next week despite repeated threats from London, with negotiations set to continue deep into the month.
The prime minister has publicly suggested that an EU summit next Thursday is his deadline for a deal. He said in September that without agreement it would be time to “accept and move on”.
The UK’s chief negotiator, David Frost, reiterated the comments during a parliamentary hearing this week, but a senior EU diplomat said this was not Brussels’ understanding following private discussions.
“I don’t detect any readiness on the British side to suspend the negotiations,” the source said. “This is going to continue. It is not a deadline.”
The EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, was in talks with Frost on Friday morning, with just a few days of negotiations to go before the 27 EU heads of state and government hold their summit to discuss the next steps.
Downing Street’s repeated public threats reflect the hope that the summit will be a springboard to a period of so-called ‘tunnel negotiations’ in which the two teams negotiate without consulting outside political stakeholders or briefing the media on possible compromises.
The diplomatic source said the next few days would inform how the leaders would react, but denied suggestions that the two sides were closing in on a deal on domestic subsidy control. This along with fisheries and the mechanics of policing the final agreement are the most contentious issues.
“You know, we had a debriefing by Michel Barnier on the state of play on the Wednesday and I don’t recall that he was saying something like that,” the diplomat said. “If this were the case that would be a good news and as you know we need to get a little bit more from the UK side, or Michel Barnier needs to, before he is ready to use as he says the ‘submarine’ or the ‘tunnel’.”
In an analysis that the EU side does not share, Frost had suggested this week that progress was being made on state aid and that fisheries were the biggest stumbling block to an agreement that could be in place by the end of the transition period.
Downing Street is pushing for a radical change in the share of catches in British waters, but the EU has so far insisted it will not accept anything less than the status quo.
Eight member states – France, Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands, Ireland, Denmark, Germany and Sweden – have a particular interest and are yet to offer Barnier any flexibility.
Barnier has privately said that the key will be how the French president, Emmanuel Macron, reacts in the coming weeks to Downing Street’s increasingly forthright rhetoric about the need for the EU to budge on its position or risk scuppering a deal.
“What I see now is that the UK is, you know, trying to say ‘OK you know this is really valuable’. But they see it as a lever to gain market access to the European Union, I think that’s the game that we’re seeing right now,” said a senior diplomat. “For France, this is something they look at, and maybe it’s even going to be the number one issue in the EU UK negotiating talks [for France]”.
Barnier has informed the 27 member states that Brexit will necessarily mean a reduced level of catches in British waters in an attempt to persuade the bloc to present a more realistic negotiating position.
The loss of any revenues currently earned by the EU’s fishing fleet in British waters would be relatively small compared with the wider trade deal, but it risks creating internal division as those who lose out seek to be compensated with extra catches elsewhere in European waters.
“It’s an issue that is of concern to eight member states, and for at least five or so of them it is a quite big political issue,” said a senior diplomat. “I mean, even if we’re talking about an annual volume over €650m [£590m], in fact it’s not that much, but politically it is.”