Boris Johnson and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on Saturday (3 October) tasked their negotiators with working “intensively” over the coming weeks to see if a post-Brexit EU-UK trade agreement can be obtained by the end of the month.
Following a videoconference call on Saturday, the two leaders said they had “agreed on the importance of finding an agreement, if at all possible, as a strong basis for a strategic EU-UK relationship in future.
However, they also noted that “significant gaps remained, notably but not only in the areas of fisheries, the level playing field, and governance.”
In a sign that the talks have moved towards the closing stages, the two leaders said they had “agreed to speak on a regular basis on this issue.”
“It instructs me and [Michel Barnier] to work intensively in order to try to bridge the gaps between us. That work begins as soon as we can next week,” UK chief negotiator David Frost tweeted.
The EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, will travel to London this week, with David Frost’s team then travelling for follow-up talks in Brussels ahead of a decisive EU summit on 19 October.
Before travelling to London, on Monday, Barnier will meet German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Following the last EU summit on 2 October, Merkel said that the EU-UK trade talks had entered a “crucial phase”.
Despite the extra time and cautious optimism following the weekend call, little progress appeared to have been made in last week’s round in Brussels, with Commission chief Von der Leyen remarking that talks needed to “intensify” because “we are running out of time”
The UK had hoped to break the months-long impasse by tabling a series of new negotiating documents including compromises on fisheries and state aid. However, Frost complained following the end of the week-long round on Friday that the differences between the EU and UK on fisheries were still “unfortunately very large and, without further realism and flexibility from the EU, risks being impossible to bridge”.
Frost said that he was “concerned that there is very little time now to resolve these issues ahead of the European Council on 15 October.”
The 15 October summit had long been billed as one of the last occasions when EU leaders would be able to sign off on a new trade pact in order for it to be ratified by the European and national parliaments. However, Johnson and von der Leyen appear to have pushed that deadline until the end of October.
Meanwhile, Johnson’s Conservative party began their online party conference over the weekend and senior ministers quickly gave mixed messages on future EU-UK relations.
Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove struck a conciliatory note, saying that “with goodwill we should be able to get a deal”.
“Recognising that we share the same high environmental and workforce standards as they do, but we want to do things in our own way, is a bit difficult for them and also there is the very vexed issue to do with fisheries,” Gove added.
However, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab told party delegates that the “days of being held over a barrel by Brussels are long gone”.
(Edited by Frédéric Simon)