(Another) Brexit deadline as Boris Johnson and Ursula von der Leyen fail to break impasse

edited December 2020 in Other Political Debate

More than three hours talking Brexit — and the two sides agree to more talks.

U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen set a new deadline for a Brexit deal but failed to break the deadlock in trade negotiations after a marathon dinner meeting Wednesday.

The pair agreed at the working dinner in Brussels that negotiations would continue and that a “firm decision” about the future of the talks should be taken by Sunday, according to a senior Downing Street official.

There are just over three weeks until the Brexit transition period ends, at which point Britain and the EU will trade under World Trade Organization rules if there is no deal. That means tariffs on goods crossing the border and other trade barriers, including a loss of access to U.K. waters for EU fishing boats.

Johnson and von der Leyen held an initial meeting on Wednesday evening with their respective chief negotiators, David Frost and Michel Barnier, before sitting down to a three-course meal with other aides. All in all the conversation lasted more than three hours.

The U.K. official said the two sides had a “frank discussion” but failed to break the impasse. “Very large gaps remain between the two sides and it is still unclear whether these can be bridged,” the official said. “The PM and VDL agreed to further discussions over the next few days between their negotiating teams. The PM does not want to leave any route to a possible deal untested. The PM and VDL agreed that by Sunday a firm decision should be taken about the future of the talks.”

In a separate statement, von der Leyen said: “We had a lively and interesting discussion on the state of play across the list of outstanding issues. We gained a clear understanding of each other’s positions. They remain far apart. We agreed that the teams should immediately reconvene to try to resolve these essential issues. We will come to a decision by the end of the weekend.”

Johnson made the trip to Brussels after Frost and Barnier hit an impasse, unable to make progress on the remaining issues. The U.K. team will head home Wednesday night.

Both sides had downplayed the chances of a deal being struck during the Brussels dinner beforehand and instead said they hoped the meeting would unblock the political deadlock so that the chief negotiators could continue to make progress on the details in the coming days.

EU heads of state will hold their final European Council summit before the end of the Brexit transition period on Thursday and Friday, but Brexit is not set to be discussed other than an update on the state of play.

Johnson and von der Leyen dined on a starter of pumpkin soup with scallops; a main of steamed turbot, mashed potatoes with wasabi and vegetables; and a dessert of pavlova with exotic fruit and coconut sorbet. It was fitting that fish featured on the menu, given arrangements for fisheries is one of three outstanding sticking points in the trade talks, and particularly scallops, which were the subject of clashes between British and French fishermen in 2018.

The other most contentious issues are so-called level playing field rules, which the EU wants in order to prevent the U.K. from using state subsidies or low standards to undercut the bloc, and the governance mechanism to resolve future issues between the two sides.

The prime minister has insisted the U.K. is willing to leave without a deal if he fails to secure the terms he seeks. He wants to be unbound from Brussels’ anti-competition rules and to retain full control of U.K. fishing waters, among other things. Johnson told the House of Commons earlier Wednesday that Brussels was “‘insisting” it should have the automatic right to punish Britain if it fails to comply with new EU laws in the future and that Britain cannot “have sovereign control over its fishing waters.” He added: “I don’t believe that those are terms that any prime minister of this country should accept.”

Meanwhile, the European Commission is set to present contingency legislation imminently, designed to prevent a cliff-edge scenario in case no EU-U.K. trade deal is agreed by the end of the Brexit transition period, two senior EU diplomats told reporters Wednesday.

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