Michel Barnier has been told to immediately restart the European Union’s no-deal planning after failing to make a breakthrough in trade talks with Britain.
The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator told a confidential meeting of MEPs on Friday afternoon that “vast differences” remain between the two sides’ positions after a week-long round of negotiations. The Frenchman’s bleak assessment prompted warnings for the European Commission to resume its contingency planning for Britain leaving the transition period without an agreement. Senior members of the European Parliament’s UK Coordination Group said they believed Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings, his senior adviser, are seeking a no-deal exit.
“It has been a while since I came to the conclusion that no deal is what the Prime Minister and Cummings actually want,” one MEP told Mr Barnier, according to a source present at the meeting.
“If you read their team’s attitude in the negotiations, it seems to fit that assumption quite well.”
Mr Barnier last week accused Britain of stalling the post-Brexit trade talks and creating a no-deal cliff edge by ruling out an extension to the transition period.
Without extending the standstill arrangement, Britain will leave the EU’s single market and customs union on January 1 next year.
The two sides have been forced to hold recent negotiations using internet video conferencing because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The Frenchman briefed MEPs that last week’s talks failed to provide progress in four areas, including the EU’s demand for a “level playing field” of regulations, unchanged access to Britain’s fishing waters and a powerful role for the European Court of Justice to intervene in disputes.
He said the EU would continue to insist on a fisheries agreement as the price for any future trade deal.
The deadlock has been exacerbated by delays caused by the COVID-19 outbreak.
Senior European officials said that Mr Barnier was deeply concerned that David Frost, the Prime Minister’s lead negotiator, failed to “engage” for even discuss regulatory alignment and governance of the future agreement.
Brussels is alarmed that failing to make a breakthrough in the negotiations by June will likely result in a trade cliff edge at the end of the year.
Mr Barnier told reporters: “What’s happening around the world and in Europe is very serious.
“We have even more responsibility on our shoulders to find a solution.”
Sources on both sides have stressed the importance of a summertime showdown between Mr Johnson and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.
It is believed by injecting “political impetus” into the talks could turn the tide towards a more successful resolution.
But chances of a deal being struck are more reliant on Mr Johnson’s willingness to change his position.
An EU source said: “It depends on the political will in London.
“Do they think now is not the time for more disruption or see it as the perfect time to make a break?”