Britain and the European Union will reconvene post-Brexit trade negotiations in Brussels on Sunday after UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and EU chief Ursula von der Leyen held inconclusive talks, as time runs short to seal a deal.
The pair held the crunch Saturday afternoon phone call, which reportedly lasted around an hour, with pressure intensifying to finalise an agreement ahead of the end of the Brexit transition period on December 31.
The high-level political intervention followed UK and European Union envoys pausing the last-ditch talks late Friday.
Both sides continue to have “significant differences” on several critical issues that have long stalled negotiations, a joint statement said.
“Whilst recognising the seriousness of these differences, we agreed that a further effort should be undertaken by our negotiating teams to assess whether they can be resolved,” Johnson and von der Leyen said in a statement following their conversation.
“We are therefore instructing our chief negotiators to reconvene tomorrow in Brussels. We will speak again on Monday evening.”
A deal is seen as essential to avoid deep trade disruption on both sides — but especially in Britain — to economies already damaged by the coronavirus pandemic.
Johnson and von der Leyen last spoke on November 7, but a month later Britain and the bloc remain divided over so-called level playing field provisions, governance and fisheries.
“Both sides underlined that no agreement is feasible if these issues are not resolved,” Saturday’s joint statement added.
– ‘Failure of statecraft’ –
Britain formally left the EU in January, nearly four years after a referendum on membership that divided the nation.
But it has remained bound by most of its rules until the end of the year, as the two sides try to agree the exact nature of their future relationship.
Without a deal, the bulk of cross-Channel trade will revert to World Trade Organization terms, an unwanted return to tariffs and quotas after almost five decades of deepening economic and political integration.
Talks through this year have finalised most aspects of an agreement, with Britain set to leave the EU single market and customs union, but the most thorny issues have remain unresolved.
“We will see if there is a way forward,” EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier said Saturday. “Work continues tomorrow.”
Johnson has insisted Britain will “prosper mightily” whatever the outcome of the talks, but he will face severe political and economic fallout if he cannot seal a deal.
“If we fail to get an agreement with the European Union, this will be a serious failure of statecraft,” Conservative lawmaker Tom Tugendhat, chair of parliament’s foreign affairs committee, told the Lowy Institute in an interview published Saturday.
– ‘Now or never’ –
European capitals have remained remarkably united behind Barnier through the fraught Brexit process, but some internal fractures have now begun to surface.
France on Friday threatened to veto any deal that fails short of their demands on ensuring fair trade and access to UK fishing waters.
Meanwhile a European diplomat told AFP that Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain and Denmark share Paris’s concerns that the EU side could give too much ground on rules to maintain competition.
Johnson may also try to speak with other European leaders over the weekend, including French President Emmanuel Macron, according to the Financial Times.
But there are just days left to finalise a deal, with an EU leaders’ summit on Thursday looming large.
Irish Prime Minister Micheal Martin, whose country could be most affected among EU states by any no-deal scenario, welcomed the continuation of discussions.
“An agreement is in everyone’s best interests. Every effort should be made to reach a deal,” he tweeted.
German MEP Manfred Weber, the head of the European Parliament’s conservative EPP grouping, saying it was “now or never” for a deal.
“Boris Johnson needs to make a choice between the ideology of Brexit and the realism of people’s daily lives,” he said on Twitter.
“In the middle of the Covid crisis we owe it to our citizens and businesses to find an agreement.