Ministers have stood down the government’s no-deal Brexit planning operation, Michael Gove said yesterday as he claimed that the chances of striking a deal were now at least 2-1.
Giving evidence to MPs, Mr Gove revealed that about 50 civil servants who had been working on Brexit negotiations had been re-deployed to deal with coronavirus and that there were no active preparations for leaving without a trade deal in December.
However, he said that there was no need for an extension to the transition period as Britain was asking for an “off the peg” trade deal with the European Union and it was in both sides’ interests to reach agreement by the end of the year.
Mr Gove, the minister for the Cabinet Office, also told the Brexit select committee that the government intended to publish within weeks the draft legal texts of a potential deal that have been submitted to the European Commission.
But he conceded that big differences remained in the approaches taken by Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, and the UK side and that “limited progress” had been made in last week’s negotiating round.
“We believe it’s still entirely possible to conclude negotiations on the timetable that has been outlined,” Mr Gove said. He added that the EU side was continuing to press for one agreement covering all areas of the future relationship, including trade, fishing rights and security, while the UK was pushing for a series of separate agreements.
He added: “I think the Covid crisis in some respects should concentrate the minds of EU negotiators in enforcing the vital importance of coming to a conclusion.”
Mr Gove told the Committee on the Future Relationship with the EU that “I’m not very good at predictions”, but he said the odds of reaching a deal “were definitely better than 2-1”.
Mr Gove also revealed that ministers had vetoed a request by Mr Barnier to allow the EU to set up a permanent mission in Northern Ireland to police the Irish backstop deal.
Mr Barnier had made the request to the UK through the joint committee set up to ensure that both sides implemented all aspects of the withdrawal agreement. The mission would allow a base for EU customs officials, vets and other staff to check that no goods that did not comply with European standards entered the province.
But yesterday Penny Mordaunt, the paymaster-general, wrote to the EU’s chief negotiator to say that there was no provision in the withdrawal agreement for such an arrangement and the government was rejecting it.
“A special EU office, uniquely in the regions and nations of the UK, in order to implement a protocol that has attracted controversy, would in our view be divisive in political and community terms,” she wrote.
In his answers to MPs, Mr Gove added: “Of course it is the case that the EU has the right to monitor the operation of what UK officials are doing, but there is no need for there to be a mini embassy in Belfast.”
Earlier Downing Street claimed that the lack of progress in last week’s talks was caused by a failure on the EU side and that Mr Barnier’s political masters needed to move the talks forward. A spokesman said: “All we are seeking is an agreement based on precedent which respects the sovereignty of both sides.”
Key stumbling blocks include access to UK waters for EU fishing boats and “level playing field” demands designed to prevent unfair competition on issues such as workers’ rights, environmental protection and state subsidies.