Johnson and EU Keep Brexit Talks Alive, Raising Hopes of a Deal
Boris Johnson, U.K. prime minister, and Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, in Brussels, Belgium, on Dec. 9, 2020. (Photographer: Aaron Chown/PA Media/Bloomberg)

Johnson and EU Keep Brexit Talks Alive, Raising Hopes of a Deal

Brexit negotiators will have another shot at reaching a trade deal, even though serious disagreements still remain between the U.K. and the European Union and talks are almost out of time.

U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen agreed to continue working for a post-Brexit trade agreement during a phone call on Sunday, a sign they think they may be able to salvage an accord after days of pessimism.

In a joint statement issued following their conversation, the two leaders said that “despite the exhaustion after almost a year of negotiations” they would “go the extra mile.” Johnson said the U.K. will try for a deal and won’t walk away from talks while there is still hope.

While negotiating teams continue their work in Brussels, von der Leyen is heading to meetings with French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris, to discuss the state of play.

The extension of talks followed a failed attempt to break the deadlock over dinner on Wednesday night, after which both sides said a deal looked unlikely and set an end-of-weekend deadline to decide whether to call negotiations off.

Without a deal, the U.K. will fall out of the EU single market and customs regime on Dec. 31 and be forced to trade with the bloc on World Trade Organization terms, with tariffs, higher costs for business and consumers and disruption at the border.

Johnson and von der Leyen said their call on Sunday was “useful” but did not say if an agreement was any closer.

“We’re going to continue to try, and we’re going to try with all our hearts and we will be as creative as we possibly can,” Johnson said in a pooled interview with broadcasters. “I’m afraid we’re still very far apart on some key things. But where there is life, there is hope.”

U.K. and European Union officials will now remain in Brussels, where they have been locked in talks for the past week, and will try to forge a deal over the next few days. If talks make progress, it is possible an agreement could be struck by the middle of the week, people on both sides said.

Negotiations between the two teams broke up shortly after midnight on Saturday with officials expressing a renewed sense of optimism. But they warned that key questions remain.

“We discussed the major unresolved topics,” Johnson and von der Leyen said in their joint statement. “We have accordingly mandated our negotiators to continue the talks and to see whether an agreement can even at this late stage be reached.”

Talks Hamstrung

The negotiations have been hamstrung by disagreements over two key issues: what access EU fishing boats will have to U.K. waters and how to ensure a level competitive playing field for businesses -- in particular whether the U.K. will have to abide by any future changes in the bloc’s environmental, social, or labor standards. Britain has so far resisted that on grounds of sovereignty.

“The U.K. 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,” Johnson said. “The most likely thing now is of course that we have to get ready for WTO terms.”

Over the past two days, technical talks between the two teams have focused on fishing, while the chief negotiators held separate discussions in the commission’s Brussels headquarters on the so called level playing field of fair competition rules for business, which is now the most difficult issue to resolve.

The EU has suggested that while it wouldn’t force the U.K. to stick to its rules, there should be a mechanism to allow it to retaliate if Britain does not keep up with changes decided in Brussels. While the U.K. has rejected this approach on grounds of sovereignty, its chief negotiator floated a fresh solution on Saturday, raising hopes that a compromise is in the air.

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab had earlier said that the U.K. would only agree to continue the talks if the EU committed to moving its positions on fisheries and the level playing field.

“The bar is quite high for us to be able to keep talking,” Raab told BBC TV. “We would need a political level commitment to move on those two key issues.”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the EU “should try everything” to get an agreement. “The negotiating position hasn’t changed in any way, and the fact that the talks are not easy is clear,” she told a news conference in Berlin on Sunday. “Britain is leaving the internal market, and we of course need to make sure that there are fair conditions for competition in place if the legal situation between the U.K. and the EU moves further apart.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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