LONDON: The European Union (EU) on Thursday set out contingency plans as talks with the UK on a post-Brexit trade agreement continue to hang in the balance after both sides declared that there are still “large gaps” to be overcome ahead of the December-end deadline.
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson had flown to Brussels in a last-minute dash to try and thrash out a breakthrough with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen over dinner on Wednesday.
However, their talks failed to find a way forward on three key divergences around fishing rights, level playing field rules and future governance mechanisms.
“We had a lively and interesting discussion on the state of play across the list of outstanding issues. We gained a clear understanding of each other’s positions. They remain far apart,” said Von der Leyen.
“We are willing to grant access to the single market to our British friends, it’s the largest single market in the world. But the conditions have to be fair. They have to be fair for our workers and for our companies and this balance of fairness has not been achieved so far. We will take a decision on Sunday,” she said, ahead of an EU summit on Thursday.
EU leaders will be briefed about the talks at the summit, although Brexit is not on the official discussion agenda.
It would now seem that Sunday, December 13, would be a kind of hard deadline after UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said it was “unlikely” the negotiations would be extended beyond Sunday.
“I think we view it as a point when we need some finality. I’m just a bit reticent ever to say – you can never say never with these EU negotiations,” he told Sky News.
“Of course, it depends if the EU moves. If the EU moves substantially and actually, we’re only dotting a few Is or crossing a few Ts, it might be different. But I think without movement on the crucial two, three areas that I’ve described, I think that will be a point of finality. And that’s certainly the way the UK side is approaching it,” he said.
Despite the two sides ordering their Chief Negotiators to resume talks until the weekend, they also agreed that trade talks remained “very difficult” and there are still “major differences between the two sides”.
Prior to his trip to Brussels on Wednesday, Johnson had told MPs the EU wanted the “automatic right” to punish the UK in the future, if it does not comply with new EU laws. He also suggested the EU wanted to keep control of fishing rights in UK waters beyond the end of the Brexit transition period on December 31.
The UK government has called on Brussels to recognise “two basic points of principle that no other country in the world would accept in dealing with the EU or anyone else as an independent state”.
“The concept the UK would leave the transition period as an independent coastal state but without control of our fisheries; that’s something that no country in the world has accepted, or is in the position of – why would the UK,” questioned Raab, in reference to one of the biggest stumbling blocks to a deal.
“We’ll accept the kind of requirements in the EU’s own free trade agreements, whether it’s South Korea or Canada,” he said.
Unless the UK and EU are able to thrash out and ratify a deal by the end of this month, Britain will have left the 27-member economic bloc on January 1, 2021, with the prospect of tariffs and quotas on goods as both sides trade on World Trade Organisation (WTO) terms. AK CPS