Brexit trade talks could continue beyond a “last-chance saloon” meeting between Boris Johnson and the European Commission president this week, Brussels has said.
Speaking to reporters in Brussels on Tuesday a European Commission spokesperson said the EU was willing to negotiate for “as long as necessary”.
The comments appear to contradict comments by chief negotiator Michel Barnier, who on Monday privately told MEPs that talks would not continue past Wednesday.
There is not yet a date for the meeting scheduled between Mr Johnson and Ursula von der Leyen, but it will take place this week in the Belgian capital.
“I don't know why you had the impression that negotiations are wrapping up tomorrow," the Commission spokesperson told reporters.
"That's not information we've given out. We said we were waiting for a meeting between president Von der Leyen and the prime minister of the United Kingdom in order to move forward, hopefully with negotiations, which hopefully could continue after that.”
The spokesperson said the EU was “not trying to fix down any kind of definitive framework for negotiations”, adding: “It's not that sort of a meeting, that's not where the negotiations happen. The meeting will be to try and lift substantial impasses so that then the negotiators can continue their work.
"That's generally how these things work. But once again it is also a meeting that is also uncharted territory when it comes to negotiations, so we're going to just have to wait and see.
“Last chance saloon or not? Quite honestly, as I said yesterday this is uncharted territory, we'll have to see how this meeting goes. From our perceptive we continue to wish to negotiate using our mandate to do our utmost to find an reach an agreement which will allow us to defend the interests of the European Union and we will continent on that path, we are willing to continue the discussions for as long as necessary."
Back in Westminster, the prime minister’s official spokesman told reporters: “We have been clear that the future trading relationship needs to be concluded by the end of the year and negotiations won’t continue into next year. That has been our position throughout.”
The PM’s spokesman said that David Frost and Michel Barnier were not negotiating today, but were preparing an “overview of the remaining differences that exist” before reporting back to Mr Johnson and Ms von der Leyen.
Downing Street has not yet given details of the timing of Mr Johnson’s visit to Brussels, and today said only that it would happen “in the coming days”.
The spokesman added: “They (Frost and Barnier) will discuss and agree on the differences that remain between us. Both parties will travel back to their respective leaders today to talk them through it in advance of a face-to-face meeting in the coming days.
“The prime minister recognises that negotiators have probably taken technical talks as far as they can. We have been clear on our negotiating position around the need for any agreement to respect our sovereignty. That remains the case, but in terms of the in-person meeting, it will be to see if there is a political way through.”
Mr Johnson has no plans to meet either French president Emmanuel Macron or German chancellor Angela Merkel, said the spokesman.
Elsewhere, there was a small ray of light for hopes of a deal on Tuesday afternoon after the government appeared to move towards dropping controversial clauses from its forthcoming Taxation Bill that Brussels had said would amount to “curtains" for talks. The written ministerial statement on the legislation made not mention of the clauses, which would give the UK power to unilaterally change parts of the Brexit withdrawal agreement signed last year; ministers have admitted their approach breaks international law.
Chief EU negotiator Mr Barnier briefed EU member states on Tuesday ahead of the top-level meeting between Mr Johnson and Ms Von der Leyen. He said: "Full unity. We will never sacrifice our future for the present. Access to our market comes with conditions."
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