Boris Johnson insisted he is ‘very hopeful’ of a Brexit deal today – despite Michel Barnier complaining there are no ‘concrete proposals’.
The Prime Minister insisted the ‘landing space’ for an agreement was becoming clear, amid fevered speculation about a watered-down Irish backstop.
However, the EU’s chief negotiator swiped that he is still waiting for ‘legally operational’ ideas from the UK.
And one of his advisers warned there was ‘no reason for optimism’.
Downing Street sources played down the tough line from the EU side, branding it a ‘negotiating tactic’.
Diplomatic activity has been ramping up amid rising fears of No Deal, with just 49 days to go until Britain is due to leave the bloc.
The PM last night moved to quash claims he was wavering over the full removal of the pivotal Northern Irish border backstop, saying he would ‘insist’ it was scrapped.
But aides have been examining proposals for arrangements that would apply only to Northern Ireland, rather than aligning the whole UK with EU market rules.
EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier delivered the thinly-veiled rebuke to Boris Johnson as he arrived to brief MEPs in Brussels today (pictured)
European Parliament president David Sassoli waded into the spat today, insisting there will not be any deal without an Irish backstop. MEPs have a veto over any agreement
The blueprint would not be the same as the previous Northern Ireland-only backstop floated by Brussels, which was dismissed by Theresa May as something no British PM. That would have involved the province staying within the EU’s jurisdiction for tax and single market rules.
Instead, the proposals is thought to be a much looser alignment of agricultural and other single market rules – although it is far from clear this will be acceptable to Brussels.
What happens next in the Brexit crisis?
Here is how the coming weeks could pan out:
September 14-17: Lib Dem conference takes place in Bournemouth
September 17: Supreme Court hears case on whether prorogation of Parliament was illegal.
September 21-25: Labour conference in Brighton
September 29-October 2: Tory conference takes place in Manchester, with Mr Johnson giving his first keynote speech as leader on the final day. This will be a crucial waypointer on how Brexit talks are going.
October 14: Unless it has already been recalled following the court battle, Parliament is due to return with the Queen’s Speech – the day before Mr Johnson had hoped to hold a snap election.
October 17-18: A crunch EU summit in Brussels, where Mr Johnson has vowed he will try to get a Brexit deal despite Remainers ‘wrecking’ his negotiating position.
October 19: If there is no Brexit deal by this date Remainer legislation obliges the PM to beg the EU for an extension to avoid No Deal.
October 21: Decisive votes on the Queen’s Speech, which could pave the way for a confidence vote.
October 31: The current deadline for the UK to leave the EU.
November/December: An election looks inevitable, but Labour is hinting it might push the date back towards Christmas to humiliate the PM.
It could also raise tensions with the DUP, which has insisted it will not accept anything that risks splitting the union.
On a visit to HMS Belfast in London today, Mr Johnson said: ‘I’m very hopeful that we will get a deal, as I say, at that crucial summit. We’re working very hard – I’ve been around the European capitals talking to our friends
‘I think we can see the rough area of a landing space, of how you can do it – it will be tough, it will be hard, but I think we can get there.’
He added: ‘But if we have to come out without a deal on October 31, we will be ready.’
Mr Barnier’s adviser Stefaan De Rynck tweeted after the briefing that there was ‘no reason for optimism’ but they were ‘ready to work’.
‘We will see if UK in coming weeks presents written proposals w/ a legally operative solution for avoiding a hard border in Ireland/NI that are compatible w/ WA,’ he added.
European Parliament president David Sassoli waded into the spat today, insisting there will not be any deal without an Irish backstop. MEPs have a veto over any agreement.
‘There can’t be an agreement without a backstop. There won’t be one,’ he told reporters in Brussels.
‘I would like to stress this point: the United Kingdom hasn’t provided any alternatives … anything that has been workable.
Mr Sassoli said the bloc would revive the previous backstop plan of keeping Northern Ireland within EU jurisdiction.
‘We are willing to go back to the original EU proposal which is that a backstop will only be added for Northern Ireland,’ he said.
Mr Johnson previously stated that he was seeking a ‘backstop-ectomy’, to remove the controversial provision from the Withdrawal Agreement altogether.
However, the task for the PM was made tougher after Parliament passed a law effectively banning No Deal at the end of October, and refused his call to trigger an early general election.
Speaking at the European Parliament this morning, Mr Barnier said he was ready to look at ‘any concrete legally operation proposals from the UK’.
German chancellor Angela Merkel suggested there was still ‘every chance’ of an orderly Brexit yesterday.
But other EU leaders have been less positive, with Spanish premier Pedro Sanchez indicating he believes there is little prospect of a compromise and No Deal is the most likely outcome.
On a visit to HMS Belfast in London today, Mr Johnson said he was ‘very hopeful that we will get a deal’
In the second Facebook Q&A session last night, Mr Johnson tried to play down speculation over concessions.
‘The backstop is going to be removed, I very much hope. I insist. Because that is the only way to get a deal,’ he said.
‘The UK Parliament will not accept the current Withdrawal Agreement. There is no way that is going through.
‘But the crucial thing to understand is that we will not accept … a Northern Ireland-only backstop.
‘That simply doesn’t work for the UK, we have got to come out whole and entire and solve the problems of the Northern Ireland border. I’m absolutely certain we can do that.’