Attorney General Geoffrey Cox and EU Exit Secretary Stephen Barclay are due to hold discussions with the bloc’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier in an attempt at breaking the Brexit deadlock at last. British diplomats are braced for the talks to continue over next weekend in the push to try to thrash out a revamped Withdrawal Agreement in time for a Commons vote set for next Tuesday. The Prime Minister’s spokesman said: “We are now at a particularly critical stage in these negotiations.”
He insisted progress had been made in Mr Cox’s efforts to secure extra guarantees that the so-called “backstop” mechanism to prevent physical customs checks on the Irish border.
“The Attorney General continues to pursue legally-binding changes to the backstop that are necessary to ensure the EU cannot hold the UK in it indefinitely.
“We have definitely been making progress in our discussions with the EU over the past couple of weeks but there remains more work to be done,” the spokesman said.
He declined to discuss reports that the Attorney General had abandoned his attempt to secure a time limit or unilateral exit mechanism to ensure the UK is not permanently trapped in an EU customs union under the backstop mechanism, but said: “I’m not going to get into specifics.”
He added: “There definitely remains more work to be done.”
Other officials suggested the EU negotiators were continuing to refuse to accept any rewriting of the original Withdrawal Agreement or the addition of extra passages with the same legal force as the document.
One diplomatic source close to the negotiations said: “The sooner we can do this, the better but it does feel like there is quite a bit of work still to do.
“We will bring it back as soon as we can.”
Ahead of his trip to Brussels, Mr Cox also dismissed reports that he has dropped attempts to secure a time limit for the backstop or a unilateral exit mechanism.
He described one report as “misunderstood fag ends dressed up as facts”, adding: “Some of it is accurate, much more of it isn’t and what is not is far more significant than what is. Complex and detailed negotiations cannot be conducted in public.”
Eurosceptic Tory MPs last night insisted they would only back a Brexit deal with full guarantees in international law preventing the UK being permanently trapped.
Members of Jacob Rees-Mogg’s 80-strong European Research Group (ERG) of Eurosceptic Tory backbenchers denied suggestions they were ready to drop their concerns about the backstop.
One ERG source said: “We are not softening our position. We need full legal guarantees that the backstop will not be used to keep the UK trapped or we cannot support any deal brought back to the Commons by the Prime Minister.”