Brexit secretary heads for Brussels as hopes build for a deal

Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay will meet the EU’s chief negotiator later as hopes build that both sides could be close to a Brexit deal.

Mr Barclay will head to Brussels for talks with Michel Barnier, when the pair will “take stock” of progress so far, according to his department.

It comes after European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker told Sky News on Thursday that “we can have a deal” on Brexit.

Mr Juncker said a no-deal Brexit would have “catastrophic consequences” and said he was doing “everything to get a deal”.

And he said he did not have “an erotic relation” to the so-called backstop, which he said he was prepared to remove from a withdrawal agreement, so long as “alternative arrangements [are put in place] allowing us and Britain to achieve the main objectives of the backstop. All of them”.

In a UK exclusive interview with Sky’s Sophy Ridge, Mr Juncker confirmed that he had been sent documents by Prime Minister Boris Johnson outlining draft ideas for a new Brexit deal.

Mr Juncker, however, said they had arrived late on Wednesday night, and he had yet to read them.

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The 64-year-old, who spent nearly two decades as the prime minister of Luxembourg, became president of the commission five years ago. His term finishes on 31 October, the same day that the United Kingdom is due to leave the European Union.

Earlier this week, he met the PM in Luxembourg – the first time the two men had met since Mr Johnson took over in Number 10. They spoke for two hours over a working lunch before Mr Johnson went off for his ill-fated meeting with Luxembourg’s Prime Minister Xavier Bettel.

Jean-Claude Juncker tells Sky News a deal can be done on Brexit
Backstop could be scrapped, says EU’s Juncker

“I had a meeting with Boris Johnson that was rather positive,” Mr Juncker said.

“I think we can have a deal. I am doing everything to have a deal because I don’t like the idea of a no-deal because I think this would have catastrophic consequences for at least one year.

“We are prepared for no-deal, and I hope Britain is prepared as well – but I’m not so sure.”

:: Listen to the Sophy Ridge on Sunday podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Spreaker

Asked if he had received the proposals from the British government, he said they had arrived “yesterday night” but he’d had no opportunity to read them yet. But he added that he had spoken to Mr Johnson on the phone “without knowing the content of the British proposals”.

But Mr Juncker did confirm to Sky News that he was now prepared to get rid of the controversial backstop plan, designed to prevent the return of a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, but only on condition that “alternative arrangements [are put in place] allowing us and Britain to achieve the main objectives of the backstop.”

The backstop has been widely criticised as having the potential to tie Britain to European Union rules for an indefinite amount of time.

Jean-Claude Juncker speaks exclusively to Sky News
Jean-Claude Juncker:’Brexit will happen’

Mr Juncker agreed that a deal would revolve around the idea that Northern Ireland would follow EU rules on food and agriculture, with other checks being done away from the border.

“It is the basis of a deal. It is the starting and the arrival point,” he said. “The internal market has to be preserved in its entirety.”

Britain’s new proposals are believed to revolve around a collection of ideas, known as the alternative arrangements, designed to offer a suite of separate guarantees that would satisfy politicians in Brussels and London, while avoiding the need for infrastructure on the border.

Mr Juncker said: “I was asking the prime minister the other day to make concrete proposals as far as so-called alternative arrangements are concerned, allowing us and Britain to achieve the main objectives of the backstop. I don’t have an erotic relation to the backstop. If the results are there, I don’t care about it.”

Asked if that meant that the backstop could go, he answered: “If the objectives are met – all of them – then we don’t need the backstop. It was a guarantee, not an aim by itself.”

He remains hopeful that a deal can be done before he leaves office.

“Brexit will happen,” said Mr Juncker.

Full interview in Sophy Ridge on Sunday at 8.30am

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