Barnier Makes an Overture that Could Oil Progress in Trade Negotiations


© European Union / Source: EC - Audiovisual Service / Photo: Mauro Bottaro

UK and EU trade talks look set to continue after the EU made a notable overture to the UK on Monday, in an effort to intensify negotiations.

EU Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier said the EU was ready to engage in the legal texts required to finalise a deal, while saying they are available to intensify negotiations.

The UK has for some time wanted to enter a period of intensified talks that included all areas where outstanding issues remained, while emphasising a need to focus on common legal texts.

But the conclusion of last week's European Council summit actively pushed back on these desires and said the onus was purely on the UK to make concessions, something that rankled the UK to the extent that Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Friday said the EU had effectively lead him to conclude talks were over.

"As stated by President Ursula von der Leyen on Friday, I confirmed that the EU remains available to intensify talks in London this week, on all subjects, and based on legal texts," said Barnier on Monday. "We now wait for the UK’s reaction."

Johnson said on Friday talks would only continue if the EU made a substantive shift in its stance to negotiations.

The initial reaction by the UK government is supportive of a view talks will continue.

Michael Gove, the most senior cabinet minister after the Prime Minister, said Barnier's move "is constructive". Gove, who was in Parliament when Barnier's tweet was put out, told the House of Commons, "while I've been at the despatch box, it has been reported that there has been a constructive move on the part of the EU."

"There has been a constructive move on the part of the EU. I welcome that and we need to make sure we work on the basis of the proposed intensification that they propose, and I prefer to look forward in optimism rather than necessarily to look back in anger," said Gove.

Gove was quick to paint it as a victory for the UK: "It is the case Michel Barnier has agreed both to the intensification of talks and also to working on legal texts, a reflection of the strength and resolution our PM showed."

The statement by Barnier certainly rolls back on the EU's post-summit statement, which one prominent Brussels reporter says appears to have been something of a miscalculation.

"It was short-sighted of EU leaders to put onus of compromising solely on the UK in their summit conclusions last week and to intentionally remove the word ‘intensive’ from their call to continue negotiations," says the BBC's Europe Editor Katya Adler.

EU leaders said in a post-summit statement on Friday that "the European Council invites the Union's chief negotiator to continue negotiations in the coming weeks."

A draft statement pencilled prior to the EU Council summit was leaked to the press on Wednesday and it said read, "the European Council invites the Union's chief negotiator to intensify negotiations in the coming weeks."

The switch from 'intensify' to 'continue' was a significant development in that it suggested the EU believes not enough concessions have been forthcoming from the UK to allow negotiations to enter the so-called 'tunnel' phase; an intense period of talks held behind closed doors by small teams from both sides as the final details of a deal are agreed.

The UK was looking for the EU's statement to signal a move to this phase and allow for negotiations to reach a conclusive phase.

In addition the EU statement called "on the UK to make the necessary moves to make an agreement possible."

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