UK, EU agree to extend Brexit talks but remain ‘far apart’ after Brussels dinner

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, right, welcomes British Prime Minister Boris Johnson prior to a meeting at EU headquarters in Brussels, December 9, 2020.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, right, welcomes British Prime Minister Boris Johnson prior to a meeting at EU headquarters in Brussels, December 9, 2020. © Olivier Hoslet, AP

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the European Union’s chief executive gave themselves until Sunday for last-ditch negotiations on a post-Brexit trade deal after failing to narrow differences during a “frank discussion” over dinner in Brussels.

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“Very large gaps remain between the two sides and it is still unclear whether these can be bridged,” a senior source in the British prime minister’s office said in a statement.

He said Johnson did not want to leave “any route to a possible deal untested”, and so he and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen had agreed to further discussions over the next few days between their negotiating teams.

Von der Leyen echoed the British comments on the meeting in a separate statement, saying, “We gained a clear understanding of each other’s positions. They remain far apart.”

The two sides agreed that a decision on whether a deal is possible before Britain finally leaves the EU’s orbit on January 1 would be taken by the end of the weekend.

Fears are running high of a chaotic no-deal culmination of Britain's convulsive divorce from the EU.

Both sides cast the meeting as a chance to unlock the stalled trade talks but acknowledge there is a danger that there may be no trade deal in place when Britain finally leaves the EU's orbit on December 31.

Talks are blocked over the issue of fair competition, with Britain refusing to accept a mechanism to allow the EU to retaliate swiftly if the UK business regulations change in ways that put European firms at a disadvantage. The EU also wants its member states' fishermen to have access to British territorial waters after the UK leaves the single market.

"I don't believe that those are terms that any prime minister of this country should accept," Johnson told the British parliament to cheers from backbench Tory MPs.

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Johnson said "a good deal" could still be done if the EU scrapped its demands, but Britain would prosper with or without a trade deal, a phrase he repeated as he left for Brussels.

A British government source said a deal may not be possible, as did EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier and a French official. "The probability of a no-deal is increasing," the French official said.

Barnier and his UK counterpart David Frost have narrowed the gaps over eight months of talks, but London insists it will reclaim full sovereignty at the end of the year after half-a-century of close economic integration.

If Britain leaves the EU single market in three weeks without a follow-on trade deal, the delays that travellers and freight will face at its borders with the European Union will be compounded by import tariffs that will drive up prices.

Demolition claim 

Ahead of their Wednesday night dinner, Johnson spoke to Von der Leyen on Monday by telephone to secure the last chance dinner invitation after Barnier and Frost's negotiations broke off without agreement.

On Thursday, EU leaders including Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron will be in Brussels for a two-day summit dominated by an EU budget dispute, but Johnson is not expected to meet them. 

Even as London and Brussels try to carve out a new trading relationship, the separate and politically vexed issue of Northern Ireland has loomed in the background.

Northern Ireland will have the UK's only land border with the bloc from next year, and that border is meant to stay open as part of the 1998 peace deal that ended three decades of sectarian violence.

Johnson's government had infuriated Dublin and Brussels by introducing a UK internal market bill that would override the EU Withdrawal Agreement, which bound London to respect Northern Ireland's unique status.

Analysts say that a desire to pivot to the left on the economy – getting out of EU state aid rules to allow Westminster to dole out subsidies to UK businesses – is behind this move to break international law.

Not just choreography 

But some measure of trust was restored on Tuesday, when British Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove and EU Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic said agreement had been made "in principle" on border arrangements.

The breakthrough covers goods passing from the British mainland to the province, and onwards to the EU's single market via Ireland.

As a result, London will cut three controversial clauses in the bill going through the UK parliament that would have denied Brussels a say in future trading arrangements between the province and Ireland. 

That could smooth the path for Johnson's trip after Germany's Europe minister Michael Roth pointedly demanded London restore "trust and confidence".

"We want to reach a deal, but not at any price. What we need is political will in London," he said.

Irish Prime Minister Micheal Martin welcomed the border agreement, but warned that the broader issue of a trade deal has not yet been resolved.

"This isn't about choreography, as some people may think. There's a very serious issue with respect to the level playing field that will be difficult to resolve," he told parliament in Dublin.

"And unfortunately we are facing the prospect of a no-deal Brexit if something doesn't break that over the next day or two."

(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS and AFP)

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