European Union officials have said there is no real prospect of meaningful talks with the United Kingdom on a Brexit deal, even while British Prime Minister Boris Johnson insists on changes to the proposed withdrawal agreement.
Brussels negotiators have concluded that the only way to avoid a no-deal Brexit would require major changes to the withdrawal agreement, such as the removal of the Irish backstop, which the EU finds unacceptable.
The backstop is an insurance policy to prevent a hard border returning between Northern Ireland and the independent Republic of Ireland, a member of the EU. If implemented, the backstop would see Northern Ireland staying aligned with some rules of the EU single market.
The backstop would also involve a temporary single customs territory, effectively keeping the whole of the UK in the EU customs union. These arrangements would apply until both the EU and UK agreed they were no longer necessary.
EU negotiators told European diplomats there was currently no basis for “meaningful discussions” with the UK and talks were back where they were three years ago, before Johnson’s predecessor Teresa May worked out a divorce agreement subsequently rejected by the UK parliament.
Brussels is said to be operating on a “working hypothesis of no-deal” after accepting the prime minister “isn’t bluffing” about crashing out of the bloc.
In response, the UK government rejected the EU’s assessment that there may be no point talking at all, saying in a statement, “We will throw ourselves into the negotiations with the greatest energy and the spirit of friendship and we hope the EU will rethink its current refusal to make any changes to the withdrawal agreement.
“The fact is the withdrawal agreement has been rejected by parliament three times and will not pass in its current form so if the EU wants a deal, it needs to change its stance.”
That statement followed a meeting between Johnson’s top Europe adviser, David Frost, and senior EU figures last week.
Frost was sent to Brussels to deliver the message that the UK will be leaving on Oct 31 “whatever the circumstances”.
After this, a senior EU diplomat was quoted in British newspapers saying: “It was clear the UK does not have another plan. No intention to negotiate, which would require a plan. A no-deal now appears to be the UK government’s central scenario”.
Frost reportedly sought discussions on how negotiations could be reset with the UK now expected to leave on Oct 31. Johnson has pledged to leave the EU on that date, with or without a deal.