The UK and the EU have agreed to hold “continuous” Brexit talks after a cool encounter between lead negotiators in Brussels appeared to yield little progress.
“The negotiations are now entering the final stage,” said Michel Barnier, the former French minister who leads talks for the European Union. “We have agreed that the EU and the UK will negotiate continuously from now on.”
Raab, who became Brexit secretary of state last month after a spate of resignations, said: “We need to step up the intensity of the negotiations as we enter the final phase and we have agreed to meet regularly to resolve those outstanding issues.”
With the clock ticking down to an autumn deadline to reach a deal, Raab said he remained confident of a deal in October.
The two sides resumed Brexit talks last week after a three-week summer gap, but differences were close to the surface. EU sources said there was little progress in two days of technical talks last week, which focused on the highly charged issue of the Irish border and the future relationship.
Raab said he had had “honest conversations” with Barnier over their differences, but maintained he was confident of an agreement in October.
Senior UK and EU officials will gather on Wednesday to continue talks, while Raab and Barnier will meet next week to assess progress.
It was Raab’s third meeting with Barnier, since he became Brexit secretary of state last month after David Davis quit the post in protest at Theresa May’s Chequers plan.
The prime minister had proposed that the UK maintain a common rulebook for goods with the EU, while negotiating a special arrangement on customs. But Barnier has already shot down the proposals on customs, while EU officials are wary of undermining the single market.
Barnier said the talks were “far more advanced” on common foreign policy and security than the economic relationship.
May’s soft Brexit plan poses significant challenges for the EU, which is deeply wary of handing any competitive advantage to a large economy on its doorstep, or doing anything to undermine the EU’s common rulebook and legal system.
“Our challenge for the coming weeks is to try and define an ambitious partnership for the EU, a partnership that has no precedent,” Barnier said. “This partnership has to respect the single market and the foundations of the European project.”
Brussels fears that little will happen in the runup to the Conservative party conference, where Tory Brexiteers such as Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg are expected to dominate fringe events. EU sources judge that Theresa May will have little room to make the compromises they deem essential if there is to be a deal later in the autumn.
The British government has attempted to get round Barnier by appealing directly to national capitals, but the strategy has yet to reveal visible results.
Raab, who began last month by saying he was looking forward to heating up negotiations, has presided over several rounds of talks, including technical ones led by officials last week.
Later this week he will set out more details of the government’s no-deal plans, but rejected reports of shortages of medicines. “As you will see when we set out our plans, some of these hair-raising scare stories are very far from the truth and I look forward to explaining the context on Thursday.”