The UK and the EU have agreed to make one final attempt to secure a post-Brexit trade deal, with talks set to resume in Brussels on Sunday, in what British officials claim is “the last throw of the dice”.
Boris Johnson and European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen agreed during a phone call on Saturday that an eleventh hour push should be made to get a deal over the line.
In a joint statement after the call, the two leaders said “that a further effort should be undertaken by our negotiating teams” to assess whether outstanding disagreements “can be resolved”.
There was little progress in the phone call, which was largely a restating of positions and priorities — British officials said the tone was “fine” — but it left the talks in a precarious position.
Ms von der Leyen and Mr Johnson agreed to speak again on Monday evening.
With Britain’s transition period ending on January 1, a British official said: “This is the final throw of the dice. There is a fair deal to be done that works for both sides but this will only happen if the EU is willing to respect the fundamental principles of sovereignty and control.”
The almost one-hour-long call was an effort to break deadlock in the trade talks after EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier and his UK counterpart David Frost declared a pause on Friday, having failed to overcome deep-rooted disagreements over fair competition rules for business, enforcement arrangements and fisheries.
Saturday’s call was not intended as a negotiating session but an opportunity for both sides to underline red lines — not least Mr Johnson’s insistence that any deal, including on fisheries, must show that the UK had regained his interpretation of sovereignty.
The revived talks are set to be conducted by small groups of around five officials on either side, with Mr Frost set to arrive in the Belgian capital around lunchtime.
British officials said the new talks would focus on the most intractable issue of the “level playing field” for fair competition. Mr Johnson wants to break free from Brussels’ regulatory orbit.
Ms von der Leyen and Mr Johnson said that they recognised the seriousness of the disagreements. “Both sides underlined that no agreement is feasible if these issues are not resolved,” they said.
European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen has to contend with a disgruntled group of governments including France, the Netherlands, Denmark, Belgium, Spain and Italy © POOL/AFP via Getty Images
The UK prime minister, who once claimed that Britain could “have our cake and eat it” on Brexit, is now facing one of the biggest decisions of his premiership: a trade off between “control” and access to the EU market. Official forecasts say no deal would cost the UK economy £40bn next year.
With little time left to ratify any deal that is reached, the calendar is further complicated by Mr Johnson’s intention to come forward next week with a finance bill that would violate the Brexit treaty he agreed with EU leaders last year.
European Council president Charles Michel and other senior EU figures have baulked at the idea that the bloc could find itself in the final stages of negotiating a treaty with Mr Johnson at the same time as his government moves to contravene its existing deal. Mr Michel warned on Friday that a trade deal would be impossible if last year’s divorce deal is not upheld.
Both sides see a window to get a deal done before a long-scheduled summit meeting of EU leaders in Brussels on Thursday and Friday.
On the issue of the level playing field, talks are stuck over EU demands for detailed, enforceable, commitments from Britain on its future subsidy policy.
EU officials said problems also persist over how to ensure Britain upholds environmental and labour standards.
Negotiators are also split over how to enforce any deal that is agreed, with Brussels insisting on the right to take unilateral action against imports of British goods in the event of level-playing field breaches, as well as a right to cross-retaliate — restricting market-access for one sector as punishment for British breaches of good faith in another.
The EU side also wants European companies to be able to pursue the UK government through the British courts over suspected violations of the deal.
Ms von der Leyen has to contend with a disgruntled group of governments including France, the Netherlands, Denmark, Belgium, Spain and Italy, which have warned Mr Barnier that they will reject any deal that does not contain robust level playing field guarantees to protect their economies from unfair British competition.
Mr Johnson is said by allies to be ready to speak to French president Emmanuel Macron, but no call was currently planned.
One EU diplomat said that a deal was in sight despite the events of the past 24 hours: the “gaps are real but nothing that can’t be overcome,” the diplomat said.