Michael Gove has praised a “constructive move” by the EU in an about-turn after its chief negotiator agreed to Downing Street’s conditions for the resumption of Brexit talks in pursuit of a deal.
Shortly after castigating the EU for its attitude to the talks during an appearance in the House of Commons, Gove had to backtrack as he stood at the dispatch box following a tweet by the bloc’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier.
Barnier who spoke to his British counterpart, David Frost, earlier in the day, wrote: “I just spoke to David Frost. As stated by [European commission president] Ursula von der Leyen on Friday, I confirmed that the EU remains available to intensify talks in London this week, on all subjects, and based on legal texts. We now wait for the UK’s reaction.”
The statement appeared to meet all the requests No 10 was making as the price of new talks as part of the “fundamental change” demanded by Boris Johnson when he called on the country to prepare for a no-deal outcome last Friday.
Gove told MPs: “Even while I have been at the dispatch box it has been reported that there has been a constructive move on part of the EU and I welcome that and obviously we need to work on the basis of the proposed intensification they propose. And I prefer to look forward in optimism than look back in anger.”
In response to a further question in the chamber, the chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster added: “If there has been movement and it seems there as been today then no one would welcome it more than me.”
Gove’s live volte-face added an extra touch of farce to the government’s suspension of the talks, which were due to start today. It appears they are likely to resume again with just 24 hours lost.
There will be questions as to why any time was lost, however, as the British demands had largely already been ceded to on Friday, as referenced by Barnier.
Moments before admitting that the outlook looked positive, Gove had claimed a litany of failures of the EU to engage in good faith with the UK in a statement to the Commons.
He claimed the “EU was only willing to conduct negotiations on fewer than half the days available” for a deal; that it would “not engage on all of the outstanding issues” and “refused to discuss legal texts”. The final insult was its deletion of the chance of an “intensification” of talks in a statement by the council of EU leaders last Thursday, it was claimed.
In short, he said the EU had “refused to negotiate seriously for [the] last month or so” leading to Johnson’s decision to end talks last Friday unless the EU came back with “fundamental challenges”.
He said the preparations for no deal were “now intensifying” with reports that he has instructed the special “exit operation” committee to meet five times a week as of Monday.
The blunt assessment came hours after a “constructive” meeting of Gove and European commission president, Maroš Šefčovič, at the joint committee charged with implementing January’s withdrawal agreement.
The tone had struck a discordant note with that of the lengthy statement by Šefčovič an hour following his meeting with Gove.
Šefčovič welcomed the clear political steer and commitment given by Gove outlining progress on key areas.
He said that “today’s meeting demonstrated the political will to move at pace on both sides” but warned that “despite some progress, much work remains to be done by the UK” in relation to the Northern Ireland protocol.
One EU insider described the progress at the joint committee meeting as “a turning point”, coming just weeks after the UK threatened to blow up the process with the UK internal market bill’s powers to “disapply” the withdrawal agreement.
At the meeting the two sides agreed a number of issues including access to EU databases and IT systems by the UK to implement the protocol.
RTE also reported that the EU has asked to have 15 border officials present in Northern Ireland in place of a permanent office in Belfast to ensure the EU rules are maintained in relation to customs and veterinary checks.