Brexit: Boris Johnson and Ursula von der Leyen speak on EU-UK ties

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen are set to speak by telephone Saturday to assess the state of post-Brexit trade talks between the U.K. and the European Union.

A spokesman at Johnson’s Downing Street office said Friday that the prime minister’s conversation with the leader of the EU’s executive arm would allow the two to “take stock” of the negotiations less than two months before a transition period designed to smooth Britain’s departure from the EU ends.

Though the U.K. left the EU on January 31, it remains within the bloc’s tariff-free single market and customs union until the end of this year.

A trade deal would ensure there are no tariffs and quotas on trade in goods between the two sides, but there would still be technical costs, partly associated with customs checks and non-tariff barriers on services.

Johnson said he hoped a deal could be concluded in the next seven to 10 days.

“There’s a deal there to be done but if not, the country is very well prepared,” he told British broadcaster Sky News on Friday.

Progress on reaching even a bare-bones agreement has been slow. The two sides are far apart on key issues, such as fishing rights and business regulations.

Following the conclusion of the latest round of talks in Brussels on Wednesday, the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier said “very serious divergences” remained. Barnier and his British counterpart, David Frost, have agreed to meet again next week.

The outcome of the U.S. presidential election, though not connected directly, could have a bearing on the discussions. President Donald Trump was a self-proclaimed supporter of Brexit and said he wanted to conclude a trade deal with the U.K. following reelection. Should he lose, many analysts said it would raise the pressure on London to secure a trade deal with the EU.

Trump’s Democratic rival, former Vice President Joe Biden, has voiced worries about the impact of Brexit on the peace process on the island of Ireland. Biden said he would seek to rebuild U.S. ties with the EU, were he to become president.

Earlier, Britain’s spending watchdog warned that there is likely to be “significant disruption” to trade with the European Union at the start of next year even if a trade deal between the two sides is agreed in time.

The National Audit Office, which assesses government spending, noted that crucial IT systems and transit areas for trucks are not yet ready to deal with the upcoming change in the economic relationship between the U.K. and the EU.

It did find some progress in the implementation of the changes required to systems, infrastructure and resources even though they have been hampered by the coronavirus pandemic.

“There is likely to be significant disruption at the border from January 1 as many traders and third parties will not be ready for new EU controls,” the National Audit Office said in its latest assessment of border preparations.

According to the government’s latest “reasonable worst-case planning assumptions,” between 40% and 70% of trucks transiting between the EU and the U.K. may not be ready for the new border controls come Jan. 1. It has also warned of queues of up to 7,000 trucks around the main sea crossings in southeast England.

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