The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier will return to London on Friday to pursue face-to-face trade talks, in what he described as the last chance for a deal.
Explaining that he was no longer self-isolating after a COVID-19 case on his team, Barnier confirmed he was returning to meet his British counterpart David Frost for weekend talks.
The UK leaves Europe’s trade and customs area in five weeks, but talks on a follow-on agreement are still stalled over fishing rights and fair trade rules.
In a tweet, Barnier warned that the ‘same significant divergences persist’ before he briefed a meeting of EU envoys carrying the same downbeat message.
‘We are not far from the take it or leave it moment,’ Barnier told the ambassadors from member states, according to a European source familiar with the closed-door meeting.
Without a change of heart from London, ‘reaching a deal will be all but impossible’, another diplomat reported Barnier as saying.
In London, Frost — prime minister Boris Johnson’s lead Brexit negotiator — was similarly cautious about chances for a breakthrough.
‘Some people are asking me why we are still talking,’ he tweeted.
‘My answer is that it’s my job to do my utmost to see if the conditions for a deal exist. It is late but a deal is still possible, and I will continue to talk until it’s clear that it isn’t.’
He added: ‘But for a deal to be possible it must fully respect UK sovereignty. That is not just a word, it has practical consequences.’
These conditions, he said, include UK control of its fishing waters and limits on state subsidies for both sides.
Sources said EU ambassadors urged Barnier to update the EU’s ‘no-deal’ contingency measures, with economic chaos widely expected if talks fail.
In London, Johnson said it was up to the Europeans to make the move and claimed that Britain was quite ready if talks collapsed.
The ‘likelihood of a deal is very much determined by our friends and partners in the EU’, he told reporters.
‘Everybody’s working very hard, but clearly there are substantial and important differences to be bridged, but we’re getting on with it,’ he said.
Johnson has been resisting signing up to the EU’s vision of a post-Brexit ‘level playing field’, with punishing trade penalties if either side diverges from agreed standards.
He has also balked at giving EU fishing boats access to British waters, in one of the most sensitive and still unresolved issues over the eight months of talks.
Sources said that Barnier explained to the envoys that the UK was asking that European access to fishing be cut by 80 per cent, while the EU was willing to accept 15 to 18 per cent.
The UK offer is ‘outrageous’, one EU diplomat said comparing the bid to swap tariff-free access to the single market for a few fish to ‘asking for Range Rover for the price of a Fiat Panda’.
If a deal cannot be signed and ratified by December 31, cross-Channel trade will face a tariff barrier and businesses on both sides — but especially Britain — will suffer.
The talks have already pushed on much longer than expected and time is running out for ratification of any deal by the European Parliament by the end of the year.
Members of the European Parliament, who will also confer with Barnier on Friday, have expressed frustration with the delays and may have to ratify a deal between Christmas and the New Year.
In Brussels, hopes for a breakthrough in the coming days were met with cynicism after several weeks of blown deadlines, verbal sparring and COVID-related delays.
One source close to the talks said she would ‘eat my hat’ if there was a deal by Monday, echoing a chorus of gripes that Johnson was playing the clock.
‘They’ve parked a tram in the middle of the track and the driver has walked off to save Christmas and fight COVID,’ an EU diplomat complained of Johnson.
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