EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier and Britain’s Brexit minister scrambled to hold talks on Sunday ahead of a crunch summit this week as time runs out on striking a divorce deal.
Barnier and Dominic Raab held surprise talks in Brussels, as London insisted the negotiations were far from reaching a conclusion.
With Britain set to leave the bloc at the end of March, European Commission head Jean-Claude Juncker is demanding “substantial progress” this week, specifically on the vexed issue of the UK’s border with the Republic of Ireland, an EU member.
With a breakthrough still seemingly elusive, Raab went to Brussels for talks with Barnier to get a head start on Wednesday’s summit. “With several big issues still to resolve, including the Northern Ireland backstop, it was jointly agreed that face-to-face talks were necessary ahead of this week’s October European Council,” said a spokeswoman for Raab’s ministry.
A senior British government source played down reports that a deal had already been done.
“It’s very much in the EU’s interests to make it look like there is a deal,” the source said, because it would then leave Britain looking “like we are the ones being intransigent”.
There are still some “big issues” to be resolved and “Dominic has gone out there to try to resolve the outstanding issues”.
In Brussels, diplomatic sources told AFP that member states’ ambassadors to the EU had been called for an urgent meeting at 6:30pm (1630 GMT).
“They are going to take stock,” one source said, but currently the British “do not seem ready yet” to sign off on an agreement.
Sunday’s flurry of activity comes as British Prime Minister Theresa May prepares to face what one newspaper cartoon dubbed “hell week”. On Tuesday, she will rake over the Irish border issue with her cabinet, amid speculation that further ministers could resign if the PM ploughs on with her proposals.
David Davis, who quit as Brexit secretary in July over May’s broad blueprint, wrote in The Sunday Times newspaper that her plans were “completely unacceptable” and urged ministers to “exert their collective authority” this week.