Michael Gove has accused the EU of refusing to engage in negotiations on a new Brexit deal amid a deepening war of words between Westminster and Brussels.
Gove, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster who is in charge of no-deal preparations, said he was “deeply saddened” by the EU position, which was “not in Europe’s interests”.
In Brussels, the European Commission insisted it was open to talks but made clear Theresa May’s Brexit agreement was “the best possible deal” Britain was going to get.
That position was underlined by Irish premier Leo Varadkar, who insisted that the Withdrawal Agreement – including the Northern Ireland backstop – could not be re-opened.
The latest exchanges followed reports from Brussels that EU officials had concluded that Boris Johnson’s new Government had no intention of negotiating and that its “central scenario” was a no-deal break on October 31.
Following a meeting of the Government’s Brexit “war cabinet”, Gove insisted the Government was ready to engage in talks in a “spirit of friendliness”.
However, he said the EU side had to accept a new approach was essential after May’s agreement was rejected three times by Parliament.
“We need a new approach and we stand ready to engage with the European Union, to negotiate in good faith to make sure that we can have friendly relationship in the future,” he told reporters.
“We will put all our energy into making sure that we can secure that good deal but at the moment it is the EU that seems to be saying they are not interested.
“They are simply saying ‘No, we don’t want to talk’. I think that is wrong and sad. It is not in Europe’s interests.”
Johnson has said that while he wants to negotiate a new agreement, he is not prepared to open talks unless the EU side agrees to drop the backstop which proved the key stumbling block to May’s deal.
Speaking on a visit to Northern Ireland, Varadkar re-iterated his invitation to Johnson to go to Dublin for talks on the basis of “no pre-conditions”.
At the same time, however, he said the Withdrawal Agreement could not be re-opened, although the EU could offer “clarifications” as well as possible changes to the Political Declaration on the future relationship between the UK and Brussels.
“Our position is that the Withdrawal Agreement including the backstop is closed. But there is always room for talks and negotiations,” he said.
“We can certainly make changes to the Political Declaration and we have demonstrated before that it is possible to offer clarifications.”
Despite the apparently increasingly entrenched positions taken by the two sides, Varadkar said he was not resigned to a no-deal Brexit which many analysts believe would hit Ireland particularly hard.
“I don’t accept it’s unavoidable. There are many ways no-deal can be avoided. I am certainly not fatalistic about that,” he said.
“As is often the case before an agreement, things can be a little bit difficult but they end with an agreement and I think that’s possible on this occasion.”
Concern in Brussels appears to have risen sharply following a meeting last week between senior EU figures and Johnson’s top EU adviser, David Frost.
One official reportedly told diplomats in the Belgian capital that Britain has no alternative to no-deal and “no intention to negotiate”.
“A no-deal now appears to be the UK Government’s central scenario,” the official was quoted as saying.
European Commission spokesperson Annika Breidhardt said Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker had made clear that he was ready to meet Johnson, although she indicated that the next move had to come from the British side.
“As President Juncker told UK Prime Minister Johnson, the Commission does remain available over the coming weeks should the United Kingdom wish to hold talks and clarify its position in more detail, whether by phone or in person,” she said.
Meanwhile, Conservative former attorney general Dominic Grieve reacted angrily to reports that Johnson could refuse to resign if he lost a vote of no confidence in the Commons until Britain was out of the EU on October 31.
“To argue that if you lose a vote of no confidence you will simply sit it out and barricade yourself in Downing Street … is simply breathtaking, stupid, infantile, and it won’t work,” he told BBC Radio 5 Live’s The Emma Barnett Show.
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