The European Commission has begun to “lean on” its own Brexit negotiator to get a trade deal with Britain, raising hopes in Downing Street that a new agreement can be struck by Friday this week.
Senior British government sources say commission president Ursula von der Leyen is now being “quite helpful” and is “keen to unblock things”.
She has sent one of her most senior officials, Stephanie Riso, to assist Michel Barnier, the EU’s frontman. Ms Riso was part of Mr Barnier’s team during the Brussels negotiations with Theresa May’s government and is seen as someone who can help to find a solution.
Face-to-face talks between Barnier and the UK negotiator David Frost began again on Saturday in London in dingy conference rooms at the Department of Business which the EU side has dubbed “the cave”.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is expected to speak to Ms von der Leyen in the next 48 hours to try to find common ground on fishing quotas, the last main sticking point. He may also call French President Emmanuel Macron, who is driving a hard bargain on fisheries.
Last week Mr Barnier insisted that the EU would let the UK keep only 15 per cent to 18 per cent of the fish in UK waters after the Brexit transition period ends on December 31. He is bound by the negotiating mandate he is given by the member states, but British officials see Ms von der Leyen’s intervention as significant. Before the EU’s deal with Mrs May in 2018 and Mr Johnson’s first deal last year, negotiations moved in a direction that Mr Barnier had been resisting.
Two senior British officials said that if a deal were to be done there should be the basis of a future relationship by next weekend.
“Von der Leyen has been quite helpful,” one said. “She is keen to unblock things. Her team has been more involved of late which is helpful. On the level playing field and state aid we aren’t there yet but we can see how we get there. The problem is fish.”
In an attempt to show Britain is ready to use the freedom of having left the EU, the government will begin the process of banning live animal exports — a move that was illegal while the UK was a member.
Ministers will launch a public consultation on the move, the first step to drawing up legislation, which is also expected to set out plans to improve welfare standards for transporting animals within England. Currently, animals can be exported overseas to be immediately slaughtered.
The launch of this consultation marks the start of a renewed push by the government to drive forward progress on a range of animal welfare issues. A No 10 source said: “The PM has always been a passionate supporter of animal welfare. Free from EU red tape, we can now do away with the cruel practice of exporting live animals for slaughter and fattening — setting an example to other countries.”
Lord Frost on Saturday repeated to Mr Barnier that any deal must respect British sovereignty. Despite widespread optimism that a breakthrough might be imminent, officials made clear that without some movement from the EU there will be no deal. One said that a no-deal departure was still “underpriced”.
A source close to the negotiations said: “We will continue to negotiate with creativity and intensity. We hope the EU will come with some fresh thinking because what we’ve seen so far doesn’t cut it. They must understand we are not going to sell out our sovereignty.”
THE SUNDAY TIMES
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