European Union chief negotiator Michel Barnier hinted at a possible post-Brexit compromise after an early round of trade talks with Britain.
The Frenchman said he and David Frost, the UK’s chief negotiator, had worked on establishing “grey zones” during their opening session in the Belgian capital. He added that the pair had both agreed on some areas of “convergence” in their negotiating guidelines. “On the first stage we are trying to see clearly, precisely where our divergences, grey zones, convergences are,” Mr Barnier told reporters after leaving the talks.
“Brexit and post-Brexit are a school of patience and determination.”
He claimed both the UK and EU’s positions are “clear”, adding: “I think the negotiations are going well.”
A 100-strong team of UK officials were bussed to the Square convention centre in downtown Brussels this morning to begin work on 11 separate sectoral deals.
Ahead of this week’s negotiations, they were given a rousing speech by Mr Frost ordering them to deliver on the Conservative Government’s general election campaign pledge to reclaim sovereignty from the EU.
His Taskforce Europe have been told to think of themselves as “equals” with their EU counterparts.
“The UK will engage constructively to reach a free trade agreement which fully respects the UK’s political and regulatory autonomy,” said a British spokesman.
Yesterday, at the European Commission’s Berlaymont headquarters in Brussels, Mr Frost was joined by the UK’s ambassador to the EU Sir Tim Barrow and a team of aides.
Mr Frost and Mr Barnier chatted and posed for photos, clutching bundles of papers ahead of the opening session.
But by mutual agreement they did not shake hands amid global concerns about the spread of coronavirus.
Mr Barnier said: “We approach these negotiations in a constructive spirit. We want to agree an ambitious and fair partnership.
“We will respect our prior joint commitments.”
Mr Frost said he was “delighted to start talks on constructive basis today” with Mr Barnier.
Talks are expected to continue until Thursday, with a further set of negotiations planned in London later in March.
The UK is refusing to extend talks beyond the end of the year and has warned it will walk away without a trade deal rather than see the process drag on.
A high-level meeting to take stock of progress is scheduled for June, by which time it should be clear whether the Canada-style trade agreement sought by Mr Johnson is possible by the end of the year.
The UK’s approach to negotiations states that the “broad outline” of a deal should be apparent by that point, which could then be finalised by September.
If not, “the Government will need to decide whether the UK’s attention should move away from negotiations and focus solely on continuing domestic preparations to exit the transition period in an orderly fashion”.
Michael Gove, the Cabinet minister responsible for overseeing the UK’s exit from the EU, said Britain would not “trade away” its “newly recovered sovereignty” during the talks.
French Europe minister Amelie de Montchalin warned the Prime Minister that the tight December 31 deadline would not pressure the EU 27 into agreeing fresh terms.
She told the BBC’s Andrew Marr programme: “If we need six more months we, as Europeans, are very clear that we want a good deal, a fair deal, a deal that can last for many generations to come, and we will not sign for the sake of having a deal. It would make no sense.”