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.”
“Let’s get this done,” is the message from Mr Johnson and he has been meeting, and will continue to meet, other EU leaders. But there’s no sign any country is breaking ranks to negotiate separately with the UK.
That means the focus is still in Brussels.
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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.
“We want to keep this going,” an EU source says. “But at some point the UK needs to give us a proposal. We can’t negotiate without one.”
Both sides say the UK has asked for the protocol on Ireland to be stripped back pretty radically – to remove the backstop designed to keep the border between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland as open as it is now under all future circumstances.
The EU has always said it is open to an alternative plan to guarantee an open border – but at the moment it doesn’t think there is one.
The idea of an all-Ireland zone for food and animals (in which the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland would follow the same rules after Brexit) has been explored and officials say the UK has presented “preliminary ideas” on how any solution in Ireland could involve the consent of all parties.
But UK officials reject the suggestion such discussions could evolve into a backstop – which would cover all aspects of trade – for Northern Ireland only, rather than the current plan, which would keep the whole of the UK in the EU’s customs territory.
“It’s still a no to the Northern Irish backstop,” one official says.
So, the Irish border issue remains the biggest obstacle to any new deal.
But nearly all the UK officials in the Brexit negotiations that produced the current withdrawal agreement, including the backstop, are no longer involved in the process.
“The core of the UK’s negotiating team has gone,” Joe Owen, of the Institute for Government, says.
“They’ve either left Whitehall altogether or gone to other jobs across government. There’s been a big loss of institutional knowledge.”
Many Brexiteers may regard that as a good thing – but it may not help produce quick results.
The size of the Europe unit in the Cabinet Office has been reduced dramatically but senior officials dispute suggestions the negotiating team is smaller or weaker.
“It’s just that the support is coming from a different place,” the permanent secretary at the Cabinet Office, John Manzoni, told MPs on Monday. “In fact there are probably more people [involved now].”
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.
That, though, could make it harder to reach an eventual agreement on a free-trade deal.
The EU is far more nervous about level playing field issues with the UK than it is with a country such as Canada because the UK is much closer geographically and a far larger trading partner, so it poses a much greater competitive threat.
And the less likely it is a trade deal can be done relatively quickly in the future, the more likely it is the EU will stick rigidly to the terms of the backstop.
“What we cannot do, and will not do, is replace a legal guarantee with a promise,” said the Irish Prime Minister, Leo Varadkar, at a press conference with Boris Johnson in Dublin this week.
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.
“I think it is possible,” he says, “but I don’t see the other 26 countries ignoring the interests of Ireland… and time is crushingly tight.”
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.