As hopes for a Brexit trade deal fade, Brussels has reportedly told EU member states not to entertain the prospect of any individual agreements with the UK that could ease its hardship if it crashes out of the bloc in three weeks.
The alleged aim is to force a chastened Boris Johnson back to the negotiating table in 2021 by allowing the UK to suffer the brunt of leaving without a deal.
Citing a diplomatic note from a Friday meeting of the EU’s working party on the negotiations, the Financial Times reported that a Brussels official told the assembled diplomats that an “incentive must be maintained” for the UK to return “as soon as possible” to the negotiating table in the event of no-deal.
Those present were reportedly told not to do anything that could replicate the benefits of EU membership for the UK beyond the four steps set out in the European Commission’s contingency plans, published on Thursday – which Downing Street has not yet said whether it will accept.
“A deal would, of course, be preferable, but it is beginning to look like the question is not whether we can stop the Brexit ship hitting the rocks, but how it can be refloated,” the paper reported a senior EU diplomat as saying.
It echoes reports from Brussels last weekend that some member states – in particular, France, which threatened to veto a bad deal – had begun to argue that the bloc’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier should not be pressured by the impending deadline and should consider parking talks until 2021 rather than rush into a subpar agreement.
The paper cited a second senior EU diplomat as saying that the bloc was aware such a strategy was high-risk, given that the UK may well choose not to return to the negotiating table despite the consequences of no-deal.
Current talks appear on the precipice of collapse – stalled, as they have been since February, over fishing rights and how to maintain the single market’s “level playing field”.
With just two days left before Sunday’s deadline, the prime minister said a no-deal outcome was looking “very, very likely”, insisting a “big offer, a big change” would be required from the EU for there to be a breakthrough.
Mr Johnson insisted a no-deal exit would be “wonderful”, as he drew criticism from his Dutch counterpart Mark Rutte for attempting to bypass the commission by offering to fly to Paris and Berlin for talks with Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel – who both snubbed his phone calls.