Von der Leyen and Johnson to speak again amid last-ditch drive to bridge gaps
EU and UK negotiators are making a final effort to bridge significant gaps in their positions as time runs out to strike a post-Brexit deal. The template for future trading and other relations for years, perhaps decades to come, is at stake.
Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, is due to brief EU ambassadors today. EU-UK talks in Brussels should then take place before Boris Johnson and Ursula von der Leyen speak again on Monday night.
The British Prime Minister and the European Commission President gave the go-ahead for talks to resume on Saturday, after a day’s pause when both sides of negotiators agreed they could go no further.
The European Commission said the conversation between Von der Leyen and Johnson was due at 1600 GMT.
If no deal is done by the end of the year, the UK and EU will introduce tariffs and border checks on goods.
The government faces an urgent question from Labour in the House of Commons later on how the talks are going.
The UK and EU are also at loggerheads over the so-called “level playing field” – a set of shared rules and standards to ensure businesses in one country do not have an unfair advantage over their competitors in others. State aid is a big sticking point, the UK want the freedom to use state aid to invest in UK infrastructure and manufacturing without being restricted by EU rules.
Sunday night brought reports quoting EU sources that the two sides were converging towards a deal on one of the major bones of contention, fishing rights — reports that were quickly denied on the British side. Barnier himself reportedly played them down upon arriving for the EU ambassadors meeting on Monday.
It’s understood that important differences remain on the other key issues, future competition rules, and a mechanism for policing a deal. The two matters are linked: in return for granting the UK privileged access to its markets, the EU wants to make sure it can take effective action should Britain seek to undercut European business or take action to gain an unfair advantage.
And the two sides disagree on how any future trading disputes should be resolved.
The question of enforcement has taken on added importance since the UK’s move to override part of last year’s binding divorce deal over arrangements for Northern Ireland.
The British government intends to continue down that path when the legislation in question, the Internal Market Bill, comes back before the House of Commons on Monday. Later this week it is expected to introduce a taxation bill also containing provisions which contravene the withdrawal deal.
At this stage, politics is as important as the technical detail: both sides need to avoid the impression of caving in. France, which has repeated a threat to veto a “bad deal”, has led a group of countries anxious to protect EU fishing rights and the integrity of the single market. The UK government, meanwhile, is adamant that an agreement must respect British sovereignty which it says is the essence of Brexit.
It is a defining moment for Johnson, whose Brexit cheerleading played a huge part in the vote to leave the EU and then carried him on to Downing Street.
The prime minister has stressed the importance of delivering the kind of independence promised by slogans such as “take back control”. But he now faces a reality that implies either compromise, or pursuing a no-deal which would mean tariffs and other costly barriers to trade, plunging relations with Europe to a new low in the process.
The EU, meanwhile, needs to determine the extent to which it seeks to defend its own “red lines”, or give ground in order to secure an agreement and avoid a scenario that would hit its own economy too.
Even if the UK and EU negotiators do reach an accord, that is not the end of the story. The legal text of a deal would need to go before EU national leaders — due to meet at a European Council summit later this week — and be approved by the UK and European parliaments.
The United Kingdom left the European Union last January but has continued to be subject to and apply most EU rules throughout the transition period. Deal or no deal, major changes will kick in on trade and other matters from January 1.