After a two-hour dinner, Mr Barnier emerged from the British residence in Brussels having told his negotiating counterpart that the EU will continue to refuse alter the Irish backstop, the mechanism to avoid a hard border. Theresa May sent Mr Barclay and her European advisor Olly Robbins to hold official negotiations for the first time since the draft EU withdrawal agreement was signed off by European leaders in November last year. Tonight’s meeting was described as “constructive” by the UK Government, who have pledged to continue negotiations until they reach a compromise acceptable to MPs in Westminster.
Leaving the meeting, Mr Barnier said: “Constructive talks it’s clear from our side that we’re not going to reopen the Withdrawal Agreement but we will continue our discussion in the coming days.”
A UK Government spokesman said: “Secretary of State for the Department for Exiting the European Union Stephen Barclay and Michel Barnier followed up on last week’s meeting between the Prime Minister and President of the European Commission Juncker to discuss the next steps in the UK’s withdrawal from the EU and explore whether a way through can be found that would be acceptable to the UK Parliament and to the European Union.
“The meeting was constructive and Mr Barclay and Mr Barnier agreed to further talks in the coming days and that their teams would continue to work in the meantime on finding a way forward.”
Of the meeting, an European Commission official said: “Michel Barnier met Stephen Barclay, the UK Secretary of State for Exiting the EU, for a working dinner this evening in Brussels to follow up on last week’s meeting between President Juncker and Prime Minister May.
“They discussed the urgent need to find a solution that both respects the EU’s guidelines, as well as one that is supported by a strong majority in the House of Commons. Further engagement is foreseen over the next week.”
Mr Barclay and Mr Barnier, who were also joined by Sir Tim Barrow, the UK’s EU ambassador, and Sabine Weyand, the EU’s deputy chief negotiator, dined on pan-fried North Sea sole with Scottish scallops and Welsh samphire and roast duck breast with peppercorn sauce and Pembrokeshire potato dauphin.
Mr Barclay will now travel to Strasbourg with David Lidington, the de facto deputy prime minister, to meet senior MEPs including Guy Verhofstadt, the EU Parliament’s Brexit co-ordinator.
Earlier today, Mr Barnier insisted “something has to give” on the British side for Brexit deadlock to be broken.
Speaking in Luxembourg, he said: “We’re waiting for clarity and movement from the UK.
“Something has to give on the British side.”
On his meeting with the Brexit Secretary, Mr Barnier added: “Tonight I will repeat the EU’s positions. I will listen to what the secretary of state has to tell us concerning the alternative arrangements which the UK would like.
“But it’s not more than a concept today. I will also evaluate the interest from the UK side for possible changes to the political declaration, which, let me remind you, fixes the outline quite precisely for the future separation.”
The French negotiator risked the fury of Brexiteers by praising the push by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn to urge Mrs May to draw up plans to remain in the EU’s customs union.