Brexit: EU and UK negotiators to resume talks in ‘last throw of the dice’

Johnson and von der Leyen accept ‘significant differences’ remain on future trade deal

British and European Union negotiators will meet in Brussels on Sunday in a last-ditch attempt to bridge significant differences over a post-Brexit trade deal.

British prime minister Boris Johnson and European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen spoke on Saturday, and asked their Brexit negotiators to resume talks but cautioned no deal would be possible unless key issues were resolved.

After an hour-long phone call they said they had agreed that a further effort should be undertaken by their negotiating teams to assess whether they can resolve their remaining differences on a post-Brexit trade deal.

In a joint statement they said “significant differences remain on three critical issues: level playing field, governance and fisheries. Both sides underlined that no agreement is feasible if these issues are not resolved.


“Whilst recognising the seriousness of these differences, we agreed that a further effort should be undertaken by our negotiating teams to assess whether they can be resolved.

“We are therefore instructing our chief negotiators to reconvene tomorrow in Brussels.

“We will speak again on Monday evening.”

Taoiseach Micheál Martin welcomed the decision to renew talks on Sunday, saying on Twitter: “An agreement is in everyone’s best interests. Every effort should be made to reach a deal.”

British sources warned that the process may still conclude without an agreement. “This is the final throw of the dice,” one source close to the negotiations told the Press Association. “There is a fair deal to be done that works for both sides, but this will only happen if the EU is willing to respect the fundamental principles of sovereignty and control.”

Talks between Britain and the European Union stalled on Friday night after a week of negotiations in London, with rising pressure on Brussels to roll out no-deal contingency plans.

"We keep calm, as always, and if there is still a way, we will see," EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier told broadcasters in London as he entered the train station to head back to Brussels after the talks were paused.

No emergency summit of European Union leaders on Brexit is planned at this stage, an EU official said on Saturday, adding that there was already a gathering scheduled for December 10th-11th.

The two chief negotiators, Mr Barnier and David Frost, issued a joint statement in which they said it was clear no deal could be found at present, with the two sides split over three issues that have long prevented a breakthrough.

“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,” the joint statement read.

“On this basis, they agreed to pause in order to brief their principals on the state of play of the negotiations.”

With just weeks until the end of Britain’s transition period, the failure to reach a breakthrough raises the prospect of an abrupt change to default trade terms including tariffs on sales to Britain, an outcome forecast to cause widespread disruption and devastate some Irish exporters.

Lack of trust

In Dublin, Government sources said that while a deal remained possible, the two sides remained significantly apart on the outstanding issues. However, it is understood that significant concessions from both sides which might lead to a deal were always likely to be the call of the prime minister and the commission president, in consultation with the member states.

One source suggested that big gaps remained between the two sides, but that they could be bridged. The Irish analysis is that the outcome of the talks depends significantly on whether Mr Johnson can sell a compromise deal to Tory MPs as “taking back control”, the slogan of the Brexit campaign.

Sources emphasised the technical difficulties in agreeing on a document that ran to 800 pages and involved multiple compromises.

But another Government source in Dublin was more downbeat, saying the biggest problem was a lack of trust between the two sides.

The breakdown follows a tense week in which EU member states, including France and the Netherlands, warned Mr Barnier not to go beyond his mandate in what he offered to Britain to clinch a deal, while the French man warned he may need more flexibility for an agreement to be reached.

Treaty-breaking clauses

Mr Barnier warned Mr Frost this week that a breakthrough needed to be reached by Friday, or it could not be guaranteed that a deal would be in place by January 1st, as it needs to be ratified by parliaments on both sides in a process that requires more time than is available.

Earlier on Friday, the EU side warned that a deal would be conditional on Britain's full implementation of the withdrawal agreement, including provisions for Northern Ireland designed to avoid a hard border.

It comes after a spokesman for the British government said Mr Johnson still intended to reintroduce the UK’s Internal Market Bill treaty-breaking clauses that were removed by the House of Lords.

The clauses would allow British ministers to breach the Brexit withdrawal agreement by deciding unilaterally how to implement parts of the Northern Ireland protocol.

The spokesman also confirmed that the British government would next week introduce a taxation Bill that is expected to include clauses allowing British ministers to determine which goods moving from Britain to the North should be considered at risk of moving into the EU single market and are subject to tariffs. – Additional reporting Reuters/Bloomberg

Naomi O’Leary

Naomi O’Leary

Naomi O’Leary is Europe Correspondent of The Irish Times

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy is Political Editor of The Irish Times