BRITAIN’S plan to hold secret “tunnel” negotiations with the European Union in July in bid to strike a free trade deal have been slapped down by Michel Barnier.
The bloc’s chief Brexit negotiator accused the UK of backtracking on its Withdrawal Agreement commitments to allow the EU to regularly scrutinise new customs arrangements in Northern Ireland after the Brexit transition period has expired. “Tunnel” is a phrase used by officials in Brussels referring to discussions which are held without the media knowing.
The gatherings shrouded in secrecy would also mean EU ambassadors not continuously being kept up to date on any progress.
The tactic of keeping the existence of the talks under wraps is designed to encourage both parties at the table to find a breakthrough on key issues.
Speaking to ambassadors from the EU27 on Wednesday, Mr Barnier said the UK’s negotiating team was trying to use access to British seas as a token for major concessions.
He told them the demands made by the team lead by David Frost would make the UK into a serious manufacturing rival to the EU.
Mr Barnier said the “tunnel” talks could not go ahead while both sides were so far apart on the topic of fishing.
Other issues the Brits and Europeans have failed to see eye to eye on include the European Court of Justice and the so-called “level-playing field” demanded by the bloc.
The Daily Telegraph cited diplomatic sources as saying Boris Johnson planned to announce a series of “tunnel” talks with the bloc following his meeting with Eurocrats this month
But officials in the UK said while this side favoured intensified talks they did not foresee “tunnel” negotiations taking place over the summer.
Mr Johnson will next week meet with the leaders of the European Commission, Council and Parliament.
An EU diplomat claimed the British had failed to clearly lay out their intentions for the tunnel talks.
The source told The Daily Telegraph: “The UK wants the negotiating tunnel with constant bargaining over the summer, but it is totally unclear on what, as the positions are so far apart at this stage.”
The source added that any such secret talks could not be held until after the autumn months.
On Thursday a senior adviser to Mr Barnier said the EU sees a path towards a compromise on a trade deal with Britain.
But he warned the UK must first be more realistic on what it expects to achieve.
Stefaan de Rynck told a virtual Irish conference that Britain had shown a lack of serious engagement on a number of issues and the talks needed to be unblocked.
He said the areas where the EU was seeing this were in regard to standards for open and fair competition, fisheries, an overarching governance structure, and on judicial and law enforcement cooperation.
He told the conference: “This may be a tough message but at the same time, we can see the trajectory of compromise.
“We have, like in some fairytale, put out some stones that show you the path to a compromise.”
His comments came after Mr Barnier said on Wednesday that Britain was seeking a trading relationship with the EU that was too close to that of a member state, urging London to adjust its demands in the four months left to reach a deal.