Britain and EU step up Brexit talks as parliamentary showdown looms

Demonstrators holding European Union and Union Jack flags outside Parliament in London on Aug 29, 2019.
Demonstrators holding European Union and Union Jack flags outside Parliament in London on Aug 29, 2019.PHOTO: NYTIMES

LONDON (BLOOMBERG) - Britain and EU will meet at least twice a week in September as the two sides seek to break the impasse ahead of the Oct 31 Brexit deadline.  

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government asked the EU to intensify talks at a meeting between David Frost, the UK envoy, and European Commission officials in Brussels on Wednesday, a spokesman for the Commission said on Thursday (Aug 29).

But both sides appeared to play down the chance of an imminent breakthrough. They “remain some distance apart on key issues,” Johnson’s office said in a statement. The EU said it is still awaiting “concrete proposals” from the UK.

The prime minister needs to convince potential rebels in his own Conservative Party that he is close to agreeing a deal with the bloc ahead of a showdown in Parliament when it reconvenes next week.

Some Tories, including former Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond, have threatened to vote against the government in the House of Commons to block a no-deal Brexit, but might be persuaded to hold off if an agreement appears to be on the horizon.

“It is now time for both sides to step up the tempo,” Johnson said in the statement. “The increase in meetings and discussions is necessary if we are to have a chance of agreeing a deal for when we leave on Oct 31, no ifs no buts.”

On Thursday, Labour’s Treasury Spokesman John McDonnell said he’s “increasingly confident” there’s a cross-party majority in Parliament for legislation seeking to block a no-deal Brexit, but warned that people shouldn’t underestimate the difficulty of winning approval within the “incredibly tight timetable” Johnson has set.

Johnson got approval from Queen Elizabeth II on Wednesday to suspend Parliament from mid-September to mid-October, restricting the time for MPs to debate the divorce from the bloc.  

The decision to step up talks comes after Johnson’s government spotted a chink of light last week during meetings with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron.

The two leaders appeared to relax their language on the Brexit withdrawal agreement and the need to retain the so-called backstop provision for the Irish border, a U.K. official said Tuesday on condition of anonymity.  

Johnson has demanded the EU drop the backstop, a fallback mechanism that is meant to keep the frontier free of checks after Brexit but which is despised by Brexiteers who argue it will keep the U.K. tied to the bloc.