Von der Leyen’s Brexit dinner almost ended trade talks – ‘EU sat in silence, arms folded’

Boris Johnson arrives in Brussels for final Brexit talks

After months of deadlock in talks, on December 9, Boris Johnson went to Brussels to talk to Ursula von der Leyen face to face over dinner. The Prime Minister had avoided travelling to the Belgium capital since taking Office, eager to avoid appearing to be at the EU’s beck and call.

Mr Johnson had hoped he could use his charm to help break some of the tension between the two negotiating partners and help push for a compromise on the remaining sticking points.

But come the end of the night, talks broke up without a clear breakthrough and joint statement was released that sent alarm bells ringing in the UK and the EU that no deal was now almost inevitable.

The pair agreed to extend negotiations for another four days to try and find a solution to the impasse, but admitted “the situation remained very difficult and there were still major differences between the two sides”.

Their statement added Mr Johnson and Ms von der Leyen had held “a frank discussion” over dinner – the diplomatic language used to describe a row.

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One British negotiator described the dinner as “a disaster”.

Now, details of exactly what happened on the night of the summit to spark fears a deal was impossible have emerged.

When the Prime Minister arrived at the European Commission’s Berlaymont building there were no warm embraces or shaking of hands – strict coronavirus social distancing meant Mr Johnson and Ms von der Leyen would be required to keep their distance all night.

The gap between them was symbolic of the huge divide that remained between the two sides.

The first point of friction occurred before the evening dinner had even begun.

Upon the UK cohort’s arrival, the Prime Minister and European Commission president posed for photos for the international media, briefly removing their masks for the pictures.

Ms von der Leyen then took charge, snapping at Mr Johnson to “immediately” re-cover his face.

“You run a tight ship here, Ursula, and quite right too,” Mr Johnson joked in response.

His jovial tone did not appear to be reciprocated, and so set the mood for the rest of the night.

As the two leaders and their most trusted officials dined over scallops and turbot – a marked reminder of the failure to reach an agreement on fishing rights – the EU sat in silence.

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According to a UK negotiator: “At one point, the whole EU side were sitting with their arms folded, saying nothing.”

Speaking to the Financial Times, another said: “We all got back to the ambassador’s residence afterwards and looked at each thinking: ‘Oh my god’.”

Even after the summit was over the frosty exchanges continued.

Mr Johnson had decided not to spend the night in Brussels and was to fly back to the UK in an RAF jet in the early hours of the morning.

Following the disaster of the dinner, the Prime Minister is understood to have chosen to phone his European counterpart before getting on the plane home.

Referring to a scene in a Quentin Tarantino film when one of the leading characters is injected with adrenaline, he tried to joke to Ms von der Leyen: “We need to defibrillate the talks.

“A bit like that scene in Pulp Fiction with Uma Thurman.”

The European Commission leader is thought to have cooly replied: “Be careful Boris, you’re talking to a medical doctor.”

It would take another 15 days of strained talks and anxious negotiations before a trade deal was reached.

On Christmas Eve, just one week before the end of the interim trade agreement between the UK and EU would come to an end, a deal was done.

Making a televised address, Mr Johnson generously praised Ms von der Leyen and the EU negotiating team, thanking them “for squaring that circle, for finding the philosopher’s stone that’s enabled us to do this”.

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