Boris Johnson is dashing to Brussels for dinner with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, hoping for an early Christmas present: a Brexit deal.
With deadlock after months of talks between UK and EU negotiators, the prime minister is aiming for an 11th-hour breakthrough in what could be a make-or-break meeting.
Mr Johnson will fly to Brussels from RAF Northolt after Prime Minister’s Questions and following a three-course dinner with Ms von der Leyen he will return to London the same evening.
The dinner is effectively the last chance for a Brexit deal, after talks between the UK’s negotiator Lord Frost and the EU’s Michel Barnier – who said the chance of a deal was now “very slim” – appeared to have run their course.
Failure to achieve a breakthrough at the dinner would make a no-deal Brexit, which Mr Johnson claims he wants to avoid, much more likely, with some European leaders believed to be running out of patience.
Announcing the dinner date, Ms von der Leyen tweeted: “I look forward to welcoming UK prime minister Boris Johnson tomorrow evening. We will continue our discussion on the partnership agreement.”
But ahead of the dinner, a UK government source downplayed expectations, claiming: “It’s clear that some political impetus will be required for the talks to make any more progress.
“If we can make progress at a political level it may allow Lord Frost and his team to resume negotiations over the coming days.
“But we must be realistic that an agreement may not be possible as we will not compromise on reclaiming UK sovereignty.”
Although Mr Johnson earlier said “hope springs eternal”, the remaining issues standing in the way of a trade deal are fishing rights, level playing field guarantees and the governance of any deal.
There had been suggestions that Mr Johnson was keen to travel to Brussels on Thursday or Friday so he could also hold face-to-face meetings with top EU power brokers Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron.
But it is thought Ms von der Leyen was opposed to that idea and did not want Mr Johnson and the Brexit dispute disrupting and overshadowing discussions at the two-day summit of the EU’s 27 leaders.
Instead, she is expected to brief the leaders during the summit on her talks with Mr Johnson and if there is progress at the dinner, negotiations between Lord Frost and Mr Barnier could resume on Friday.
The European Commission’s chief spokesman, Eric Mamer said Mr Johnson and Ms von der Leyen would not be sealing a deal but trying to find reason to “move forward hopefully with negotiations, which could hopefully continue after that”.
“This is uncharted territory,” he said. “We’ll have to see how this meeting goes.”
Earlier, briefing EU foreign ministers, Mr Barnier said: “We are close to the moment of needing urgent measures which means a contingency plan for no deal.
“The basis of our future cooperation with the UK is more important than rushing now. We cannot sacrifice our long-term interests for short-term political goals.”
But the prospects of a breakthrough at the dinner received a boost when the Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove announced a deal on post-Brexit arrangements for the Irish border.
After talks with Maros Sefcovic, the commission’s vice-president, in Brussels on Monday, Mr Gove announced that the government will drop parts of the UK Internal Market Bill that break international law.
Welcoming the agreement on the so-called Northern Ireland Protocol, Mr Sefcovic said: “I hope this will create positive momentum for the discussions on the free trade agreement.
“We’re still very far apart and we’re not hiding this from anyone. We’ve removed one big obstacle from the way and I hope we will see the positive results also coming from this very complex negotiations.”
Mr Gove said: “We have reached stability and security for Northern Ireland. It was always very important to make sure there’s no border infrastructure between Ireland and Northern Ireland. That’s guaranteed.
“What we’ve also been able to do is make sure there are no tariffs or costs for business in Northern Ireland and also we will be able to ensure unfettered access for goods which come from Northern Ireland to the UK.
“And that means businesses in Northern Ireland have the opportunity to enjoy the best of both worlds, access to the European single market because there’s no infrastructure on the island of Ireland and at same time unfettered access to the rest of the UK market.”
Asked why England, Scotland and Wales could not have the best of both worlds, Mr Gove said: “Northern Ireland is in a unique situation. The only land border the UK has with the EU is on the island of Ireland.”
The dinner will be the PM’s first official visit to Brussels since October 2019 when he clinched his EU Withdrawal Agreement, which he hailed as an “oven-ready deal” in the general election campaign a few weeks later.
But Brussels is the city where Mr Johnson made his name as a journalist for The Daily Telegraph, writing stories which included claiming the EU wanted to ban prawn cocktail crisps, bent bananas and curved cucumbers and harmonize the size of condoms throughout Europe.
In one front-page Telegraph story, the future PM claimed the European Commission’s Berlaymont headquarters would be blown up by the end of 1991.
Three decades later, not only is the renovated Berlaymont still standing, it is the venue for Mr Johnson’s dinner with Ursula von der Leyen.
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