The UK and European Union are confident they will be able to strike an agreement before the post-Brexit transition period expires at the end of the year. Mr Frost, Boris Johnson’s chief trade negotiator with the bloc, today entered the European Commission’s Berlaymont headquarters for the first time since March to meet his EU counterpart. After the outbreak both Mr Barnier and Mr Frost were forced to self-isolate after displaying symptoms of the virus, and have both admitted that the pandemic has somewhat left talks behind schedule.
But after a pledge by Mr Johnson and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen to accelerate the talks, physical meetings have been reintroduced in the hope of striking a deal before the autumn.
The need for a speedy deal was reinforced by the announcement Mr Frost will replace Mark Sedwill as the Prime Minister’s National Security Adviser in August.
“I will, of course, remain Chief Negotiator for the EU talks and these will remain my top single priority until those negotiations have concluded, one way or another,” Mr Frost last night said.
The talks today are just the start of an intense eight-week schedule agreed by both sides that will set the shape the UK-EU relationship for decades to come.
The chief negotiators will focus on plans to revive the negotiations, which have so far failed to produce serious progress with both sides still too far apart to agree a deal.
The UK Government has until the end of the month to extend the transition period by up to two years.
But Mr Johnson has repeatedly refused to take up the option, insisting Britain will leave the EU’s single market and customs union on December 31.
The Prime Minister’s reluctance to delay the Brexit talks and move away from his red lines has left Brussels unsure he genuinely wants to strike a deal.
However, a secret dash by a number of Mr Barnier’s deputies to London, during the pandemic, brought back intelligence to the Belgian capital to show there was enough willingness to carry on talks throughout the health crisis.
Last week Express.co.uk revealed that this week will be used to conjure up new working methods to meet the Prime Minister’s ambitious timetable.
Sources on both sides have hinted this could involve the publication of new draft proposals in a bid to find room for compromises.
So-called “non papers”, proposals without official standing, could be used to reveal negotiating hands without tabling a genuine plan.
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It has also been suggested that officials could “lock themselves in a room for as long as it takes” to “engineer a breakthrough”.
In order to focus minds, the negotiating teams on both sides will be shrunk in size to their most senior members.
No fewer than six planned negotiating sessions have been announced between next Monday and August 21.
Mr Frost last week said: “These meetings will be smaller and focused on seeing whether we can begin to make genuine and rapid progress towards an agreement. We will go to Brussels in good faith to engage with the EU’s concerns.
“This needs to be a real negotiation and some of the EU’s unrealistic positions will have to change if we are to move forward. We have noted carefully what the EU has said in recent days on this subject and look forward to discussing it.
“UK sovereignty, over our laws, our courts, or our fishing waters, is of course not up for discussion. Equally, we do not seek anything which would undermine the integrity of the EU’s single market.
“Finally, I want to be clear that the Government will not agree to ideas like the one currently circulating giving the EU a new right to retaliate with tariffs if we chose to make laws suiting our interests. We could not leave ourselves open to such unforeseeable economic risk.”