Final effort on Brexit deal amid growing pessimism over prospects

Government preparing special measures to support Irish food exporters

Speaking after an EU meeting in Brussels, Taoiseach Micheál Martin has said that he hopes a last minute trade deal can be struck between the United Kingdom and the European Union. Video: Reuters

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EU and UK negotiators are engaged in a final effort to reach agreement on a trade deal this weekend amid growing pessimism in Brussels and sharper rhetoric about a no-deal in the UK.

Negotiators will continue talking until Sunday when the two sides have agreed to decide whether a deal is possible.

On Friday, UK prime minister Boris Johnson said a no-deal outcome was “very, very likely” after EU leaders rebuffed his suggestion of individual meetings to break the deadlock.

The talks remain stalled on fisheries, level playing field guarantees of fair competition and how to enforce any agreement. But the focus has narrowed in recent days on to the “ratchet clause” which would allow the EU to impose tariffs on UK goods if it raised its environmental, employment or consumer standards and the UK did not follow suit.

Prospects for a deal

Senior Irish Government sources acknowledged the growing pessimism about the prospects for a deal, but said they believed an agreement could yet be reached. One source said that they expected German chancellor Angela Merkel to become involved over the weekend, now that the agreement on an EU budget and recovery fund had been secured at the summit.

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Speaking in Berlin, Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney said an agreement could still be reached. “I know there is a growing pessimism across the EU and coming out of London,” he said, “but I still believe there are enough realists involved in this process to understand the consequences of no deal, regardless of what is being said publicly.”

But preparations for a no-deal outcome are being intensified everywhere. The Irish Times understands that the Government is preparing special measures to support food exporters to the UK if tariffs are imposed on January 1st.

While the UK’s exit from the EU single market will lead to extra costs and difficulties for many companies, the imposition of tariffs on food exports to the UK in the case of a no deal will create an immediate problem. Under the plans outlined by the UK, tariffs – or import duties – of more than 70 per cent would apply on beef exports, effectively pricing many Irish products out of the market. Some dairy exports would also be hit hard.

On Friday, a senior EU official said French president Emmanuel Macron and Dr Merkel spoke with European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen and European Council president Charles Michel earlier this week and agreed that separate bilateral talks with the UK would be refused so that the bloc speaks with a single voice.

Offer to visit EU capitals

The EU official made the comments after being asked about Mr Johnson’s offer to visit EU capitals for talks. The prime minister this week told reporters: “I will go to Brussels, I will go to Paris, I will go to Berlin, I will go to wherever to try and get this home.”

Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte responded: “I would invite him to stay in London and work hard. We have our own negotiator, Michel Barnier, so the capitals don’t negotiate. We have a Brexit team in Brussels that does those negotiations for us.”

Downing Street rejected Ms von der Leyen’s assurance on Friday that the so-called “ratchet clause” to maintain equivalence in standards into the future would not impinge on the UK’s sovereignty.

The European Commission president said the UK would remain free to decide whether or not to follow EU standards but the EU would adjust access to its market accordingly, adding that the measure would apply “vice-versa”. But a Downing Street spokesman said “there isn’t anything new here”.

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