Newsnight: Hannan says he’s ‘bewildered’ over Brexit suggestion
Trade negotiations with Britain once again stalled a few weeks ago after one of the chief negotiator’s aides tested positive for coronavirus. Mr Barnier had been due to continue to lead the negotiations with London remotely but astonishingly, one EU official told The Times: “You wouldn’t believe the problems we had trying to get him to switch his computer on right or get his camera working for a video conference.” During his period of self-isolation, his boss and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen stepped forward to take a more hands-on approach with trade talks, with her deputy chief of staff Stephanie Riso taking the lead in contacts with the British.
Ms Rios, a top French official who had previously worked alongside Mr Barnier on the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement, immediately made quick progress.
But Mr Barnier had clearly grown frustrated and was “not happy”.
On the Friday before he travelled to London to resume trade talks, the chief negotiator briefed EU ambassadors, with one diplomatic source saying he “guided member states” to areas where believed too many concessions were being made to his UK counterparts.
The source told The Times: “He raised flags.
Brexit news: Michel Barnier is ‘not happy’ with Ursula von der Leyen
Brexit news: Michel Barnier was in London last week for trade talks with the UK
“It was masterful and subtle but everyone was aware that Barnier himself was not happy with the Von der Leyen and Riso approach of getting a deal ‘whatever’ it takes.”
This triggered an intense confrontation between France and Germany, with Angela Merkel warning Emmanuel Macron to relax his demands and threats over a no deal Brexit that could push Boris Johnson to the point of walking away from the negotiating table.
France’s permanent representative Philippe Léglise-Costa warned: “Germany wants an agreement now but there will be political consequences in other states if the conditions demanded [by the EU] are not met.”
Mr Léglise-Costa also warned the likes of Germany that France would follow through with its threat to veto any trade deal unless the UK relaxed its position in a number of areas and Mr Barnier was allowed to toughen up the EU’s stance.
Brexit news: Boris Johnson has stood firm against demands from the EY
But this sparked a furious reaction from Berlin, with German ambassador Michael Clauss lashing out at the French, Dutch and others for being “a bit jittery”.
Following France’s threat to veto any deal with Britain, the European Commission made the unexpected move of quickly toughening its stance around fishing rights and the level playing field issues.
France’s Europe minister Clément Beaune, a close ally of Mr Macron, had said: “If there were a deal that isn’t good which in our evaluation doesn’t correspond to those interests, we will oppose it.
An insider close to the UK negotiators told The Times: “We went from a position on Thursday morning where we thought we could see our way through to a deal by the weekend to one where it looked almost impossible to see how we’d ever get a deal.”
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Brexit news: France threatened to veto any trade deal with the UK
Brexit news: Angela Merkel has urged the EU to show unity
This toughened stance set alarm bells ringing, with the UK’s chief negotiator Lord Frost briefing Mr Johnson in person in Downing Street, insisting he would not bow down to this increased pressure.
Mrs Merkel spoke to Mr Macron and Mrs von der Leyen by telephone and said that while she understood the fears from the French, the German leader appealed for the bloc to present a united front at such a critical period in its future.
The plea from the German Chancellor appeared to work to some degree.
Brexit news: The transition period ends on December 31
France slightly relaxing its demands for regulatory alignment to allow, and as Mr Beaune said on Sunday, “a system in which a divergence of standards would be allowed but beyond which corrective measures would be taken”.
Mrs von der Leyen and Mr Johnson have since spoken on the phone, with the Prime Minister travelling to Brussels on Tuesday morning for crunch talks with the European Commission President in a last-ditch attempt to make a breakthrough in post-Brexit trade negotiations.
But much uncertainty still remains with little over three weeks until the end of the Brexit transition period by which a time a trade agreement must be ratified, or both sides will be faced with a no-deal outcome.