James Forsyth James Forsyth

Is a Brexit deal within reach?

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Trade talks between the UK and the EU are in a better place than they have been at any point since they started back in March. Now, in one way this is not impressive — the diplomatic equivalent of being the tallest mountain in Holland. For the first three months of these negotiation both sides were bullish, restating their maximalist positions, and coronavirus forced the negotiations online, making diplomacy and quiet compromise trickier. But now an intensive series of talks have been agreed, some of which will be face to face. Both sides appear to be in earnest about trying to break the deadlock.

The British side is, privately, far more optimistic than it has been at any previous point in the negotiation. It’s not that there was any great breakthrough in the call between Boris Johnson and three of the EU’s presidents on Monday, but given that the new schedule of talks had already been agreed, no one was expecting that. What did encourage London was the positive tone, and the lack of spin the EU side put on the meeting afterwards.

A further source of encouragement in No. 10 is that the talks on the implementation of the withdrawal agreement are proceeding relatively smoothly. Last week’s meeting of the Joint Committee, which is overseeing the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol among other things, passed out without incident. One No. 10 source tells me that it has been a ‘lot less tumultuous and problematic than people said it would be’. Even some of the DUP’s worries about the agreement are becoming less pronounced. Northern Irish sources say that the EU’s demand for a Belfast office from which it would monitor the implementation of the protocol, something that many Unionists would have loathed, has now been quietly dropped.

The EU now accepts that the UK really won’t extend the transition period beyond the end of this year — and this is a big step forward.

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