LONDON: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen have agreed to go the “extra mile” in their pursuit of a post-Brexit trade agreement after they spoke on Sunday, which was seen a hard deadline for the prolonged UK-EU negotiations.
Both sides are hoping for a last-minute “eleventh-hour” compromise in order to have arrangements in place before the Brexit transition period ends on December 31.
However, significant divergences over key sticking points on fishing rights and competition rules have so far proved unsurmountable.
“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,” Johnson and Von Der Leyen said in a joint statement after their crucial phone call on Sunday afternoon.
“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,” they said.
Johnson has called a meeting of his Cabinet ministers to discuss the latest state of play, which experts hope indicates that some movement is being made possible.
“Even at the eleventh hour, the capacity exists for a deal,” urged Michael Martin, the Prime Minister or Taoiseach of Ireland, the country arguably most affected as an EU member-country sharing a border with the UK territory of Northern Ireland.
If the UK and EU are unable to strike a deal, the two sides would be trading on World Trade Organisation (WTO) norms, with considerable barriers to movement of goods as well as people.
With the UK no longer signed up to the EU rules, it would also mean travel restrictions for Britons travelling to and from the EU at the end of the Brexit transition period on December 31, given the coronavirus pandemic lockdown rules.
The negotiating teams on both sides have been working through the weekend to try and find a way out of the deadlock but UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said on Sunday morning that the “political will” to clinch a deal remains elusive.
“The bar is quite high for us to be able to keep talking. We would need at a political level a commitment to move on those two key issues,” he told the BBC just hours before the all-important phone call between Johnson and Von Der Leyen, which had been scheduled as a point of finality in the talks.
“Never say never because EU negotiations can often drag and drift. But actually we do need finality and therefore we need at the political level of Ursula von der Leyen that there is clarity the EU will move on those two key issues. If we get that then there are still talks to be processed,” he said.
The central issue in the talks is how close the UK should stick to EU economic rules in the future.
The EU wants to prevent the UK from gaining what it sees as an unfair advantage of having tariff-free access to its markets – not paying taxes on goods being bought and sold – while setting its own standards on products, employment rights and business subsidies.
Fishing rights is another major area of disagreement, with the EU warning that without access to UK waters for EU fleets, UK fishermen will no longer get special access to EU markets to sell their goods.
The UK has been adamant that its stance is that of any sovereign nation and argues that what goes on in its own waters, and its wider business rules, should be under its control once it is no longer a member of the 27-member economic bloc.
The Opposition Labour’s Ed Miliband accused the government of being “ideological” over its position in the talks, and warned leaving without a trade deal would be “disastrous for the country”.
“[Johnson] has been cavalier with our national interests and is playing Russian roulette with jobs and livelihoods of people up and down the land,” he said.
The UK had voted to leave the EU in a referendum in 2016 and under the Withdrawal Agreement, or the so-called divorce pact, they have until December 31 to define their future trading arrangements or part with no deal – which would end the current tariff-free and quota-free partnership they share in most sectors of the economy.