Brexit trade talks between the European Union and the United Kingdom will continue over the coming days, although British Prime Minister Boris Johnson warned Britons to prepare for a no-deal Brexit, with the UK and EU remaining “very far apart” on the key issues.
Amid “major unresolved topics’’ and the passing of yet another deadline without any resolution Mr Johnson and European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen late Sunday night released a joint statement saying talks would continue to “go the extra mile’’ to see if an agreement ”at this late stage can be reached’’.
“We had a useful phone call this morning. We discussed the major unresolved topics. Our negotiating teams have been working day and night over recent days. And despite the exhaustion after almost a year of negotiations, despite the fact that deadlines have been missed over and over we think it is responsible at this point to go the extra mile. We have accordingly mandated our negotiators to continue the talks and to see whether an agreement can even at this late stage be reached,’’ the leaders said, without offering a new deadline.
But speaking to Sky News, Mr Johnson was more pessimistic.
“As things stand, and this was basically what Ursula and I agreed, we are still very far apart on some key things,” he said at Downing St after briefing his cabinet. “But where there is life there is hope. The UK certainly won’t be walking away from talks, I think people would expect us to go the extra mile. I still think there’s a deal to be done if our partners want to do it”
He said that he had offered once again to talk directly to European leaders but had been rebuffed.
“I repeated my offer. If it’s necessary to talk to other capitals then I’m very happy to do that. The commission is very determined to keep the negotiations on the way that they’ve been done between us and the commission,” he said.
He added that a Brexit on World Trade Organisation (WTO) terms is “the most likely thing now”.
“The UK can’t be locked into the EU’s regulatory orbit and we’ve obviously got to take back control of our fisheries four-and-a-half years after people voted for it.”
The Prime Minister added: “Let’s see what we can achieve. But in the meantime, get ready, with confidence, for January 1 – trade on WTO terms if we have to.
“We have made huge preparations for this. We’ve got ready. Either way, whatever happens, the UK will do very very well,” he said.
The two leaders had previously declared that Sunday was the final deadline to see if any of the three major sticking points: fishing rights, the EU’s insistence on level playing field provisions and concern about the judicial body to oversee any disputes. While the continuation of talks has delayed shocks to the financial markets, there has been no breakthrough in the
talks on the three key issues throughout the entire Brexit transition period.
"We’ve got down to the crunch now and we still don’t know": a British beef and arable farmer in south England says the uncertainty caused by the drawn-out Brexit saga is making it difficult to plan ahead, with Britain preparing to crash out of the European Union’s single market and customs union when the post-Brexit transition period ends on December 31.
EU negotiator Michel Barnier and Britain’s David Frost also held talks late on Saturday and early on Sunday. They have been alternating between the capitals but a European official said that, for the moment, they would remain in Brussels.
Reports suggested the two sides were exploring a potential deal on how to respond if their regulations diverge over time and threaten fair competition.
But Britain cannot compromise on the “fundamental nature” of Brexit, controlling UK laws and fisheries, the prime minister said.
Without a deal, cross-Channel trade will revert to World Trade Organisation rules, with tariffs driving up prices and generating paperwork for importers, and the failed negotiation could poison relations between London and the continent for years to come.
“Either way, whatever happens, the UK will do very, very well,” Mr Johnson insisted.
Ireland stands to lose out more than any other EU country if trade with its larger neighbour is disrupted, and cautiously welcomed the reprieve.
“Time to hold our nerve and allow the negotiators to inch progress forward, even at this late stage. Joint statement on Brexit negotiations is a good signal. A deal clearly very difficult, but possible,” Foreign Minister Simon Coveney tweeted.
Time to hold our nerve and allow the negotiators to inch progress forward – even at this late stage. Joint statement on #Brexit negotiations is a good signal. A deal clearly very difficult, but possible. https://t.co/TfN0p9nQ9G
— Simon Coveney (@simoncoveney) December 13, 2020
The hardline pro-Brexit faction in the Conservative party was unconvinced, however, and MPs fired their own tweets warning against any concessions.
Much of the text of a possible trade deal is said to be ready, but Britain and Brussels are wrangling over a mechanism to allow for retaliation if UK and EU laws diverge in a way that puts continental firms at a competitive disadvantage.
“The defence of the single market is a red line for the European Union,” an EU source said. “What we have proposed to the United Kingdom respects British sovereignty. It could be the basis for an agreement.”
In London, the government insists that Britain is ready to leave the union and handle its own affairs after 47 years of close economic integration.
Downing Street says it has mapped out “every single foreseeable scenario” for problems after December 31, and “no one needs to worry about our food, medicine or vital supply chains”.
The government says it is ready to offer hefty new support for sectors in the firing line such as farming and autos, but British business groups are aghast at the lack of clarity on future trading rules.
Scotland’s nationalist government meanwhile demanded an end to “the crippling uncertainty” of a possible no-deal Brexit coming on top of the coronavirus pandemic.
And the European Parliament is deeply unhappy as time runs out for a thorough review of any pact before the year-end deadline.
“Irresponsible and bitter,” senior German MEP Bernd Lange tweeted about the drawn-out saga, warning that serious ratification is becoming “increasingly impossible”.