Is Boris Johnson approaching a Brexit breakthrough? That's the question being asked among Conservative MPs after there appeared to be movement last week from the government and DUP that could help to secure a deal with the EU. Today the Prime Minister met with EU commission president Jean-Claude Juncker in Luxembourg to discuss the prospect, over a lunch of pollock and risotto.
On the conclusion of the meeting, a No. 10 spokesman said the pair had agreed to step up discussions and for Michel Barnier and Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay to hold talks on a political level:
“'The leaders agreed that the discussions needed to intensify and that meetings would soon take place on a daily basis. It was agreed that talks should also take place at a political level between Michel Barnier and the Brexit Secretary, and conversations would also continue between President Juncker and the Prime Minister.'
However a European Commission spokesperson had a somewhat more gloomy readout – saying they still had not received from Boris Johnson specific proposals on replacing the backstop:
“'President Juncker recalled that it is the UK’s responsibility to come forward with legally operational solutions that are compatible with the withdrawal agreement. President Juncker underlined the commission’s continued willingness and openness to examine whether such proposals meet the objectives of the backstop. Such proposals have not yet been made.'
So is this real progress or simply both sides attempting to avoid blame for a breakdown for the time being? Agreeing to increase the number of discussions taking place to daily does suggest the EU is interested in finding a solution. However it is clear from the Commission comments that Juncker sees the responsibility for this as primarily sitting with the UK.
What's more, there is anger towards Johnson from some EU leaders as was demonstrated today when the prime minister of Luxembourg Xavier Bettel gave a press conference after meeting with the Prime Minister. The two had been meant to give a joint press conference. However, loud anti-Brexit protests meant that Johnson's team asked to move the presser inside. Bettel reportedly refused and instead gave a press conference alone (to whoops and cheers) with two lecterns out – thereby 'empty chairing' Johnson. During his appearance, Bettel suggested that progress on agreeing a deal was slow to non-existent. He also found time to break with etiquette and mock Johnson during the press conference – also criticising the Leave campaign and saying the UK alone was to blame for Brexit:
“'For me, I just have one withdrawal agreement on the table. And it’s the one from last year. There are no changes. There are no concrete proposals for the moment on the table. And I won’t give an agreement to ideas. We need written proposals and the time is ticking. So stop speaking, but act if you want to discuss different proposals, but we won’t accept any agreement [which] goes against the single market [or] the Good Friday agreement.'
Inside government, there is a view that they have one shot to present concrete proposals to Brussels. It follows that there is a reluctance to do this until they believe they have met all of the tests set by Brussels on alternative arrangements to the backstop. As James revealed on Saturday, Barclay has told colleagues they have managed to find a way to avoid infrastructure that undermines the Good Friday Agreement as well as a way to protect the integrity of the EU's single market. However where there is still a way to go is how to avoid the need for checks on goods on the island of Ireland. This remains pivotal for breaking the deadlock.
With Johnson also insisting that he has no plans to seek a Brexit delay despite a bill ordering him to do so, there could be another reason that aides see a positive in delaying an unveiling of any specific proposal. If they are able to prove to Juncker that no deal is a real possibility, the Commission could be more likely to compromise in the way Johnson requires EU leaders to in order to agree a deal he can sell back home.