EU officials say the UK is “dancing around the issues” in talks in Brussels on a Brexit deal. Boris Johnson’s government is seeking to renegotiate the withdrawal deal agreed by his predecessor, Theresa May, but discussions so far have been at a very general level. The EU maintains the text of the withdrawal agreement is closed but it is still listening.
“The UK wants a less involved relationship,” says one EU source close to the talks, “but it’s not clear what that means in practice.” The prime minister’s Brexit envoy, David Frost, is back in Brussels this week for further talks but time is running short. UK officials say criticism of their approach, from the EU side, is unfair.
“We’re having conversations this week which pick up on last week’s discussions,” one official says, “and we’ve agreed where to focus talks in the future.” That means the focus is still in Brussels.
So far this week, the UK side says it has presented ideas on customs and manufactured goods, while there has been further discussion on the non-binding political declaration which sits alongside the withdrawal agreement and outlines the future relationship between the two sides. But while the government says progress is being made, the EU insists no formal proposals have been tabled.
There is also a sense from those involved in the talks the UK’s desire for a looser relationship involves not just economic issues but defence and security too. All of this exasperates the EU. There is plenty of churn behind the scenes but little certainty about anything.
Philip Rycroft, who was until recently the permanent secretary at the Department for Exiting the European Union, says it will be very difficult to get a deal done by mid-October.
If the EU were to shift position on any issue, it would want some degree of confidence a new deal could win the approval of the UK Parliament. That could mean waiting for a general election – but if anything is going to be achieved in these talks, it is going to have to happen pretty quickly.
As well as replacing the backstop, Boris Johnson wants a clearer path to what he calls a “best-in-class” Canada-style free-trade agreement with the EU in the future.
But it has been made clear during the talks in Brussels that this would involve the UK getting rid of many “level playing field” elements – promises agreed by Theresa May to stick close to EU rules on things such as subsidies for business, workers’ rights and environmental rules.
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