Brexit: Face to face talks to resume after Michel Barnier's Covid self-isolation ends

Michel Barnier is heading to London this evening for trade talks with the UK. Credit: PA

Face to face Brexit trade talks are to resume after the EU's chief negotiator has left self-isolation, eight days after a member of his team tested positive for coronavirus.

Michel Barnier said "physical negotiations can continue" following his period of quarantine, and he is "travelling to London this evening to continue" talks with UK Chief Negotiator Lord David Frost.

He said he'd be briefing the European Parliament today before making the trip, adding how the "same significant divergences persist".

But the fact he's travelling could be a signal that the UK has changed its negotiating position in recent days - reports from Brussels this week had suggested he would not head to London unless the UK made concessions.

It is believed physical talks will now take place over the weekend.

Lord Frost insisted a deal "is still possible", saying he is looking forward to resuming talks this weekend.

He tweeted: "Some people are asking me why we are still talking. My answer is that it's my job to do my utmost to see if the conditions for a deal exist. It is late, but a deal is still possible, and I will continue to talk until it's clear that it isn't."

He added: "But for a deal to be possible it must fully respect UK sovereignty.

"That is not just a word - it has practical consequences. That includes: controlling our borders; deciding ourselves on a robust and principled subsidy control system; and controlling our fishing waters.

"We look to reach an agreement on this basis, allowing the new beginning to our relationship with the EU which, for our part, we have always wanted. We will continue to work hard to get it - because an agreement on any other basis is not possible."

Boris Johnson echoed Mr Barnier, saying "substantial and important differences" still remain but claimed the UK "will prosper mightily" even if a deal is not reached.

He said "there's a deal to be done" if the European Union want to do it, but refused to be drawn on how likely it was that both sides would reach an agreement.

Mr Barnier was forced into self-isolation last Thursday and trade talks moved online, with Lord Frost saying both teams would remain in “close contact”.

At the time the PM's spokesman said the UK side was "committed to working hard" to reach a free-trade agreement (FTA) and were working to "bridge the gaps that remain between us".

Since then, Rishi Sunak announced that UK borrowing this year would be almost £400 billion and the economy is expected to contract by 11% - the Office for Budget Responsibility warned that if there is a no-deal Brexit, the economy would shrink a further 2%.

Unemployment is expected to rise to 7.5% next year but the OBR says it will be more like 8.3% with no deal.

On Thursday the PM's spokesman told reporters that Mr Johnson "believes that the UK will thrive with or without a deal with the EU".

"But it remains our ambition to reach an FTA which is why we continue to negotiate," the spokesman added.

Both sides have stressed the need to work quickly if a deal is to be in place when transition arrangements expire at the end of the year.

The UK will leave the single market and customs union in any event but work continues on a deal to allow smooth trade with no quotas or tariffs.

But the talks have been stuck for months on the issue of fishing rights, the governance of any deal and the "level playing field" conditions aimed at preventing unfair competition by cutting standards or increasing state subsidies.