The European Union chief negotiator turned the screw as Tory MPs warned the Prime Minister he may have to accept the humiliation of postponing his “do or die” deadline for exiting the EU on October 31.
Mr Barnier told a meeting of EU ministers that a text could be struck tonight if Britain agreed to a legal text tabled by Brussels. The two sides haggled over a draft text until 11.30pm last night in Brussels and restarted this morning at 7.30am. A fresh UK draft tabled last night was being argued over, with the EU drawing up alternative language.
“Because even if an agreement will be difficult, more and more difficult to be frank, it is still possible this week,” he said. He went on: “Reaching an agreement is still possible … Let me add also that it is high time to turn good intentions into a legal text.”
In the private meeting later, Mr Barnier reportedly said tonight was the realistic deadline for a legal text to be agreed so that it could be circulated and agreed between the 27 remaining countries ahead of the full summit.
In other key developments:
- A short delay to Brexit beyond October 31 looked increasingly likely. Former justice secretary David Gauke said it could be needed to ensure Parliament has time to consider the deal fully and does not “stagger into a no-deal Brexit by accident”.
- Irish deputy premier Simon Coveney told fellow foreign ministers “a big step forward needs to happen today”. Belgian deputy PM Didier Reynders confirmed Mr Barnier had set a deadline of midnight for a deal to be done this week. He said: ‘If we have an agreement tonight it will be possible to go to the Council and then again to the British Parliament. It’s not easy, we have some red lines.’
- Mr Johnson met his DUP allies to update them on the talks amid claims that Arlene Foster’s Northern Irish party was getting uneasy.
The midnight deadline set by Mr Barnier was emphasised by an EU official, who said: “We need to land this tonight.”
Luxembourg’s foreign minister Jean Asselborn warned that if they failed, it would be impossible to agree a deal at the summit, which runs on Thursday and Friday, and decisions would have to be postponed to a special summit later this month, an outcome that would almost certainly cause Mr Johnson to miss his “do or die” pledge.
Dutch foreign affairs minister Stef Blok identified EU worries about the sanctity of the single market as a key stumbling block. He said: “The UK proposal contained some steps forward, but not enough to guarantee that the internal market will be protected.”
Michael Roth, Germany’s Europe minister, was downbeat, telling reporters he was “not quite sure” whether a Brexit deal was close.
However, the pound gained instantly on Mr Barnier’s words about an agreement being possible, adding 0.7 per cent against the dollar.
Cabinet minister Theresa Villiers admitted the outcome was unpredictable. “It’s quite an intensive process,” she said. “That in itself is encouraging but these are difficult questions and there is little time so we cannot predict the outcome.” Commons Leader Jacob Rees-Mogg predicted a deal that would satisfy the DUP and Conservative Right-wingers. “Basically, I am trusting Boris,” he told LBC radio. “I think we can trust the Prime Minister to deliver in the negotiations.”
Mr Gauke said he would vote for a deal but called on the PM to accept a short delay to allow time for parliamentary scrutiny. He identified a risk that Parliament could agree a deal in principle on Saturday, but then reject it when it saw the fine detail a week later.
Former foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt told BBC radio: “If we needed an extension of a few days, I think people would just feel the end is in sight and that’s the important thing.”