Hopes of EU trade deal rise as Michel Barnier stays on for more talks

Michel Barnier

Michel Barnier has remained in London for intensive talks, prompting hopes that a trade deal with the EU will be concluded.

Brandon Lewis, the Northern Ireland secretary, said the decision by the EU’s chief negotiator to keep talking was a “very good sign”. Leo Varadkar, Ireland’s deputy prime minister, also voiced cautious optimism.

“It’s by no means guaranteed but I think on the balance of probabilities it will be possible to agree a free-trade agreement with the UK which means there will be no quotas and no tariffs,” Mr Varadkar told RTE radio.

The talks had been expected to switch to Brussels next week but Mr Barnier will now remain in the UK until Wednesday. Although observers said that was in part due to the high coronavirus infection rates in the Belgian capital, the decision was welcomed by the government as further evidence of momentum.

Mr Lewis told The Andrew Marr Show on BBC One: “The fact that Michel Barnier has outlined in the last week or so that they are going to come back and do these intensive negotiations, he recognises the EU do need to move, and that he is staying through to next week, is totally a very good sign.

“I think there is a good chance that we can get a deal but I think it is for the EU to understand that it is for them to move as well.

“We have got to make sure that it is a deal that works not just for our partners in Europe — we want to have a very good relationship with them obviously — but one that works for the United Kingdom.

“I think there is a good chance that we can get a deal but I think it is for the EU to understand that it is for them to move as well.”

Mr Lewis also played down suggestions that relations with the US could be damaged if Joe Biden is elected president because of concerns over the impact of Brexit.

Mr Biden, who goes into next week’s election ahead in the polls, has warned that he would not sign a free trade agreement with the UK if the Good Friday agreement was in any way undermined by the decision to leave the EU.

Senior Democrats have widely criticised legislation going through parliament which gives ministers the power to override elements of the Brexit withdrawal agreement relating to Northern Ireland, even though the government has admitted that it breaches international law.

Mr Biden was vice-president when Barack Obama warned in 2016 that the UK would go to the “back of the queue” for a trade deal if it left the EU and, unlike President Trump, is known to be no fan of Brexit.

Mr Lewis insisted that Britain would continue to work closely with the US, whoever won the election, and said the UK Internal Market Bill was designed to protect the peace process in Northern Ireland. “We absolutely protect and abide by the Good Friday agreement. It is absolutely key,” he said. “We have always worked very closely with whoever is the president of the USA. We as a country have a long, special relationship to build on, on a wide range of issues across history.

“One of them is the work we have done together, and with the Irish government, to ensure we got that Belfast-Good Friday agreement. We will continue to protect that.”