UK and EU diplomats pessimistic as UK Brexit negotiator arrives

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - British and EU diplomats made clear on Wednesday that there was no immediate prospect of substantive negotiations on an EU divorce deal as Britain’s new negotiator, David Frost, arrived in Brussels for talks.

FILE PHOTO: Britain's Ambassador to the European Union Tim Barrow and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson's Europe adviser David Frost leave the European Commission headquarters after a meeting with officials in Brussels, Belgium, August 28, 2019. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

Britain’s new prime minister, Boris Johnson, says progress is being made in his drive to secure a better Brexit deal than his predecessor Theresa May achieved, but opposition parties say he is bluffing in order to run down the clock to leaving the EU on the scheduled date of Oct. 31 - most likely without a deal.

The issue goes to the heart of the political crisis in London, where a cross-party alliance was seeking on Wednesday to force Johnson, now heading a minority government, to ask the EU for a three-month Brexit delay, and Johnson was seeking to pre-empt this with a push for an Oct. 15 election.

Frost, appointed by Johnson, made no comment to journalists as he arrived, but a British official said London was unwilling to put anything on the table for fear it would be swiftly shot down. The official said London was expecting creativity and a joint endeavour from the bloc’s side.

The EU’s executive Commission has complained that Britain is procrastinating.

“That is because these semi-negotiations are a bluff,” one EU diplomat said on Wednesday. “The British don’t have alternative arrangements, they are playing for time.”

A senior EU diplomat added: “They have put precisely zero proposals on the table.”

And a third diplomat added: “There is little sense in negotiating with a government that has no parliamentary majority to pass through the house whatever could maybe be agreed.”

Johnson’s main demand is that the EU ditch the “backstop” agreed with May.

This is an insurance policy that would require Britain to obey some EU rules until another mechanism is found to avoid checkpoints on the land border between the Irish Republic, part of the EU single market, and the UK province of Northern Ireland.

The bloc says it is for Britain to propose an alternative that is practical and legally sound and achieves the same ends.

Meanwhile, the Commission on Wednesday issued new contingency plans for a no-deal Brexit, including allowing the 27 remaining EU states to access more than 700 million euros’ (635 million pounds) worth of emergency aid, some of it from a natural disaster fund.

More financing would be available for farmers, the agricultural sector including Irish beef producers, and state aid restrictions would be eased.

It also proposed prolonging existing rules for cooperation between the bloc and Britain in transport and fisheries, as well as giving Britain the option to continue paying into the EU’s joint budget in 2020 to remain part of EU research and academic programmes.

“Even if not desired, the EU is ready for a no-deal,” said Commission spokeswoman Mina Andreeva. “Better safe than sorry.”

Writing by Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Kevin Liffey