It will be ‘very challenging’ to reach a Brexit trade deal despite ‘substantial progress’ being made, Brussels’ top official said tonight, just two weeks before Britain is set to crash out without a deal.
European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen warned that ‘big differences’ remain between the EU and UK, while Prime Minister Boris Johnson told the Commission president that it looked ‘very likely’ a deal would not be reached unless the EU position changed ‘substantially’.
It comes after a top British minister warned the chances of reaching a deal are less than 50%, with four years of negotiations set to come down to the wire and businesses still unsure of how to prepare.
Negotiations will continue on Friday, Mrs von der Leyen confirmed, but time is running out to reach a breakthrough. After the 7pm call, she said: ‘We welcomed substantial progress on many issues.
‘However, big differences remain to be bridged, in particular on fisheries. Bridging them will be very challenging. Negotiations will continue tomorrow.’
Mr Johnson urged the bloc to move on fisheries and said some ‘fundamental areas’ remained difficult despite a narrowing of the gap on the ‘level playing field’.
A Downing Street spokeswoman said: ‘The Prime Minister underlined that the negotiations were now in a serious situation. Time was very short and it now looked very likely that agreement would not be reached unless the EU position changed substantially.
‘He said that we were making every effort to accommodate reasonable EU requests on the level playing field, but even though the gap had narrowed some fundamental areas remained difficult.
‘On fisheries he stressed that the UK could not accept a situation where it was the only sovereign country in the world not to be able to control access to its own waters for an extended period and to be faced with fisheries quotas which hugely disadvantaged its own industry.’
The spokeswoman continued: ‘The EU’s position in this area was simply not reasonable and if there was to be an agreement it needed to shift significantly.
‘The Prime Minister repeated that little time was left. He said that, if no agreement could be reached, the UK and the EU would part as friends, with the UK trading with the EU on Australian-style terms. The leaders agreed to remain in close contact.’
Chief negotiators Lord Frost and Michel Barnier have been holding discussions in Brussels all week aimed at breaking the deadlock on key issues which have plagued the talks for months and seen multiple deadlines missed.
They include fishing rights, the ‘level playing field’ to ensure neither side can unfairly compete with the other on environmental standards, workers’ rights or state subsidies, and the legal mechanisms to govern any deal.
But Lord Frost warned tonight that progress now seems ‘blocked’.
Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove, who has been in charge of the Government’s no-deal planning, said earlier on Thursday that the chances of an agreement remained ‘less than 50%’.
He told the Commons Brexit Committee the ‘most likely outcome’ was that the current transition period would end on December 31 without a deal.
Mr Gove also confirmed the Government will not seek to negotiate a fresh trade agreement with the EU next year if they cannot reach a deal before the end of the Brexit transition period.
The European Parliament has set down a three-day deadline for post-Brexit trade deal negotiators to strike a deal, warning that MEPs will not have time to ratify an agreement this year unless it is ready by Sunday night.
Presidents of the parliament’s political groups said it could organise a session to look at the deal by the end of the month, but on condition that ‘an agreement is reached by midnight on Sunday December 20’.
EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier, who has been holding talks with the UK team led by Lord Frost, said there had been ‘good progress’ but the ‘last stumbling blocks remain’.
The House of Commons rises for Christmas at the close of Thursday’s business but MPs have been put on standby to be recalled if a trade deal is secured.
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