Three phone calls that unlocked Brexit

Press play to listen to this article

LONDON — The third time was a charm when it came to Brexit phone calls. 

Conversations on Monday and Tuesday between EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier and his U.K. counterpart David Frost failed to get negotiations moving again — but a chat on Wednesday lasting almost an hour broke the deadlock. 

It was Barnier who offered the key to unlocking talks. In the morning he told MEPs that “an agreement is within reach if both sides are willing to work constructively.”

To normal people that might sound like a statement of fact. But in the world of Brexit it was loaded with meaning. 

Talks stalled last week when the U.K. put formal negotiations on hold in the wake of the European Council summit. EU leaders suggested in their conclusions that it was up to Britain alone to make compromises.

U.K. ministers and officials, including Frost, Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove, said that without a signal from the EU that it was also ready to make concessions, formal talks could not resume.

The two subsequent calls between Frost and Barnier raised hopes, but failed to move things forward in any substantial way. Barnier insisted to Frost that the EU was willing to move to negotiations on a legal text about all subject areas — another demand from Britain — but it was not enough.

The hardball tactics from London eventually paid off in the third call. “We will seek the necessary compromises on both sides in order to reach an agreement and we will do so right up until the last day until it’s possible to do so,” Barnier told MEPs in his olive branch to the U.K.

 »