Negotiators call in Johnson and von der Leyen to break Brexit impasse

Talks on an EU-UK trade deal will go down to the wire, and to the top, after the chief negotiators in the talks on Friday (4 December) called in their political masters to decide on whether an agreement can be reached. EPA-EFE/YVES HERMAN / POOL

Talks on an EU-UK trade deal will go down to the wire, and to the top, after the two chief negotiators in the talks called in their political masters on Friday (4 December) to decide on whether an agreement can be reached.

The EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, and his UK counterpart David Frost upped the drama on Friday, stating in a joint statement on Twitter that “after one week of intense negotiations in London, the two chief negotiators agreed today that the conditions for an agreement are not met, due to significant divergences on level playing field, governance and fisheries,”.

“On this basis, they agreed to pause the talks in order to brief their principals on the state of play of the negotiations. President Von der Leyen and Prime Minister Johnson will discuss the state of play tomorrow afternoon.”

The talks have been paused rather than stopped, leaving the way clear for Boris Johnson and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen to broker a compromise on the outstanding issues. The two leaders are expected to speak by phone on Saturday afternoon.

State aid subsidies, fishing and the governance of the new agreement remain the key sticking points, as they have been from the start of the negotiations.

Late choreographed drama on whether to reach a deal has long been inevitable, with both sides needing to demonstrate that any deal represents a hard-won victory. EU leaders are set to gather for a summit in Brussels next Thursday (10 December).

Signs of that dynamic have been particularly evident this week. French Europe Minister Clément Beaune threatened to veto any agreement that fell short of Paris’s demands on access to UK fishing waters and maintaining the so-called ‘level playing field’ on regulation and state aid.

At a meeting earlier this week, a handful of countries, including France, Denmark, the Netherlands and Italy, expressed concern that Barnier had offered too many concessions to London.

Meanwhile, Steffen Seibert, spokesperson for German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is particularly anxious to ensure that a deal is eventually obtained, said that “everybody has their principles, there are red lines, that’s clear, but there’s always room for compromise.”

Johnson has consistently stated that the UK will prosper with or without an agreement.

On Friday, a spokesman for Johnson said the government was “committed to working hard to try and reach agreement” but repeated that the UK couldn’t “agree a deal that doesn’t allow us to take back control”.

However, the slow pace of the talks means that any agreement struck in the coming days will still face a race against time to be scrutinised by lawyers and ratified before the post-Brexit transition period ends on 31 December.

The European Parliament has scheduled an emergency session on 28 December, while the UK’s House of Commons could be forced to sit until 23 December to pass an agreement.

Failure to agree and ratify a post-Brexit trade accord will see the UK exit the EU’s single market and trade with the bloc on World Trade Organisation terms from 1 January.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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