Boris Johnson is to make an eleventh-hour attempt to unblock post-Brexit trade talks with the EU, as UK officials admitted that weeks of intense negotiations had almost “run out of road”.
The British prime minister will speak to Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission president, on Saturday to try to broker a trade deal. Calls to other EU leaders including French president Emmanuel Macron could follow.
Chief UK negotiator David Frost and his EU counterpart Michel Barnier confirmed in a joint statement on Friday night that after a week of intense talks in London “significant divergences” remained between the two sides.
“We agreed to pause the talks in order to brief our principals on the state of play of the negotiations. President von der Leyen and prime minister Johnson will discuss the state of play tomorrow afternoon,” they added.
The stalemate on EU fishing rights in UK waters, a so-called level playing field on fair business competition and the governance of any trade deal — including sanctions if one side breaches the agreement — has left EU leaders facing a stark choice over how far they are willing to compromise.
Although Downing Street said talks had reached a “very difficult point”, with UK officials claiming the EU had toughened its demands at the last minute, hopes remained that a deal could be reached early next week.
A spokesman for Angela Merkel, German chancellor, appealed for “compromise on both sides”. EU officials denied making new demands and Charles Michel, European Council president, said: “The British side needs to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’, the member states need to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’.”
Despite the brinkmanship and briefings that a deal might collapse, bookmakers on Friday put the chances of an agreement at more than 80 per cent. British and EU leaders agree one is desirable for both economic and political reasons.
Although Mr Johnson’s decision to leave the EU single market and customs union will ensure a “hard Brexit” with border disruption, a trade deal would avoid tariffs and provide a basis for the UK to rebuild relations with the bloc.
Mr Johnson will have to decide whether to accede to EU demands for powers to punish Britain if it deviates from European norms in areas like workers’ rights, state aid and the environment.
British officials claim the EU wants the right to retaliate with sanctions if the UK undermines level playing field arrangements on business competition. They also say Mr Barnier wants tight constraints on future British subsidy policy.
EU leaders are also faced with tough compromises, particularly on the question of surrendering fishing quotas for EU boats when Britain regains control of its territorial waters after the Brexit transition period expires on January 1. Mr Barnier is insisting that EU boats should only surrender 18 per cent of their existing quota.
Clement Beaune, French European affairs minister, told Europe 1 radio: “If a good agreement cannot be reached, we will oppose it. Each country has a veto right.” Belgium, Italy, the Netherlands and Spain are among other countries pushing for more British concessions.
Negotiators are racing against the clock to finalise a deal before an EU heads of government summit in Brussels next Thursday, and ahead of British MPs holding a series of inflammatory Brexit votes on Monday.
Mr Johnson has decided to persist with “safety net” legislation intended to maintain a freely operating border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK in the event of no trade deal.
The internal market bill and the taxation bill will both give ministers the power to override the UK’s withdrawal treaty with the EU, agreed last year, in breach of international law.