BRUSSELS, July 27 (Reuters) - The European Union’s Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier expressed confidence at a closed-door meeting with national envoys to the bloc that a new deal with Britain was possible, diplomatic sources told Reuters.
Barnier’s comments after the latest round of EU-UK negotiations last week stand in sharp contrast with the downbeat assessment he delivered publicly in saying that London’s rigid positions on fisheries and the level playing field guarantees of fair competition meant a deal was “unlikely” for now.
Further highlighting that the internal EU analysis of the latest in the tortuous Brexit process may be more sanguine than some officials have suggested in public, Barnier’s comments were echoed by Ireland and the Netherlands, according to the sources, who are familiar with last Friday’s discussions.
Envoys for the two EU countries — expected to take the biggest hit from any change in trade rules following Brexit — said they remained confident that a new deal with Britain would eventually materialise, the sources said.
In discussions among representatives of the 27 EU member states about fisheries and the latest on Brexit, the Dutch envoy quipped that a deal would eventually “come swimming across (the English) Channel”, according to the sources.
The sources also revealed discord between EU member states on the bloc’s fisheries strategy in talks with Britain, saying that Lithuania and Hungary expressed concern at the meeting that a stringent stance on the matter risked threatening overall chances for sealing a deal.
The sources said these comments were rebuked as “unacceptable” by France, for which the future of its fishing industry is a sensitive economic and political matter.
A spokeswoman for the EU’s executive European Commission, where Barnier is the official responsible for Brexit negotiations for the whole bloc of 27 nations, said it had nothing to add to the negotiator’s public comments last week.
Asked for comment, Lithuania’s EU mission said it would not discuss exchanges at closed meetings and added: “Lithuania remains of the position that a wide-ranging and ambitious agreement on the future EU-UK relations would be the preferable option.”
“Lithuania supports EU chief negotiator and maintains the position that progress is needed on all areas reflected in the EU negotiations mandate,” it also said, a reference to the EU’s insistence that there would not be a trade deal with Britain without an agreement on fisheries as well.
The French mission in Brussels echoed that, saying the French envoy at the Friday meeting appealed for solidarity on all strands of talks with Britain as laid out in the EU member states’ joint negotiating mandate, which included fisheries.
The Irish mission to the EU’s Brussels hub had no immediate comment and the Dutch representation said it would not comment on closed-door conversations. The Hungarian EU office did not immediately respond to the request for comment. (Reporting by Francesco Guarascio and Gabriela Baczynska, Editing by William Maclean)