LONDON – The European Union and Britain said Friday that wide gaps remained in their fraught talks on a rudimentary trade agreement following the Brexit divorce and called for intensified negotiations before a deadline in a couple of weeks.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson will have a video conference Saturday to chart the way forward, but the EU's top official relied more on hope and perseverance than rational analysis that a deal could still be struck.
“Where there is a will, there is a way," she said in an assessment of the state of play two weeks before an EU summit to specifically address the post-Brexit trade issue.
“We should not forget that we have made progress on many, many different fields. But, of course, the most difficult ones are still completely open," von der Leyen said.
EU negotiator Michel Barnier backed her up, saying that even if there was positive news on minor issues after another week of talks, there remained “persistent serious divergences on matters of major importance for the European Union." These include state aid rules, fishing rights and regulations on business to ensure British firms can't gain an unfair advantage in the vast EU market by undermining the bloc's social, labor and environmental rules.
His British counterpart, David Frost, concurred, saying in a statement that “familiar differences remain" on major problems and added he was “concerned that there is very little time now to resolve these issues ahead of the European Council (summit) on Oct. 15."
On the highly symbolic issue of fisheries and the sharing of catch quotas and fishing grounds, Frost said that “the gap between us is unfortunately very large and, without further realism and flexibility from the EU, risks being impossible to bridge."
Further highlighting the divisions, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that Britain’s plans announced this month to breach the legally-binding withdrawal agreement it signed with the EU to regulate trade on the island of Ireland and make sure peace is preserved there was a big blow.
“We’ve suffered a certain setback with the breaching of the agreement we reached on Northern Ireland. I have to say simply: that’s bitter.”
Barnier insisted it had made negotiations on the trade deal even more difficult. He said an efficient governance of any trade deal, already a major sticking point, “is naturally even more important following the U.K. government’s introduction of the Internal Market Bill, which breaches its obligations under the Withdrawal Agreement."
The EU opened legal proceedings against Britain and EU Council President Charles Michel said after an EU summit that the 27 leaders were united that “the Withdrawal Agreement must be implemented in full. No question about that."
Still, the EU and the U.K. recognized talks had to continue if only because too much was at stake economically for both sides if there would be no deal at the end of the year.
“We want a deal, because we think it is better to have a deal as neighbors — also, on top of these COVID times with devastating impact on the economies, but not at any price," von der Leyen said of the coronavirus pandemic.
That's why Saturday's talks will be so important. The announcement came as their negotiators were winding up another weeklong session of detailed negotiations on issues from fisheries rights to state aid rules that should come in force once a Brexit transition period ends Dec. 31.
Little progress has been made on such a deal since the U.K. left the bloc at the end of January.
Johnson has said he is prepared to walk away from the negotiations if there is no agreement by the time of the next EU summit on Oct. 15. The EU sees a deadline at the end of the month, allowing for two months to get any deal through legislative approval.
Johnson urged the EU to show some flexibility and grant the U.K. the kind of trade deal it already has agreed with Canada.
“I hope that we get a deal. It’s up to our friends," he told the BBC. "We’re so near. We’ve been members for 45 years. It’s all there. It’s just up to them.”
Danica Kirka and Pan Pylas in London, and Frank Jordans in Berlin, contributed to this report.