BRUSSELS – With both sides digging in their heels as another Brexit deadline passed Thursday, the European Union and Britain demanded concessions from one another in talks on a basic trade deal that would soften the economic blow of the coronavirus pandemic for all.
The EU leaders meeting in a summit on the day British Prime Minister Boris Johnson had set as a potential cutoff point for the acrimonious negotiations said in a joint statement it was now up to “the UK to make the necessary moves to make an agreement possible."
London immediately took this as belligerent bluster and UK chief negotiator David Frost said he was surprised by the “suggestion that to get an agreement all future moves must come (the) UK. It's an unusual approach to conducting a negotiation."
With negotiating teams ready to continue to seek a deal which could still come into effect when a Brexit divorce transition period ends on Jan. 1, all eyes turned to London where Johnson was bound to announce his next move on Friday.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the veteran diplomat, immediately sought to soothe tempers and said that “we asked Britain to be willing to compromise. This of course means that we too have to make compromises."
European Union chief negotiator Michel Barnier said “the negotiations aren’t over," adding that his team would be London-bound for more talks next week and planned to host negotiations in Brussels the week after that.
He also insisted that EU negotiators “are prepared to speed up negotiations,” countering Frost who said in a Tweet: “Surprised EU is no longer committed to working 'intensively' to reach a future partnership.”
Johnson had set the first day of the EU summit on Thursday as the deadline to get a trade and security deal to replace Britain's EU membership that expired on Jan. 31.
Instead of unfettered trade among EU member, a no-deal would leave both sides facing tariffs, custom duties and major regulatory burdens at a time when the pandemic has already created the worst economic crisis in decades.
“With COVID-19 having such a devastating impact on society and on the economies in the United Kingdom and across Europe, obviously I think leaders will not want to hit citizens with a shock in terms of what a no-deal would represent, a significant additional shock to our respective societies and economies,” Irish Prime Minister Micheal Martin said.
Knowing the chances of a deal are slimmer by the day, the EU leaders also urged all in the bloc to “step up their work on preparedness and readiness at all levels and for all outcomes, including that of no agreement."
Beyond the call for speed, the leaders flaunted their unity at the summit, something Britain has failed to dent during years of talks on the withdrawal conditions and now on a bare trade deal with the new non-member.
Ahead of Britain's angry retort to the summit conclusions, few doubted that Johnson will lean toward continuing the talks for a few more weeks. Dutch Prime Minister was still confident. “Negotiations are going on and I take it they will continue. I have not heard there would be a problem."
All sides agree though that the negotiations remain in a deep rut over differences on the issues of state aid, common standards of regulation and fishing rights.
Overall, the EU says Britain is trying to retain the advantages of EU membership without the commitment to play by the bloc’s rules. Britain says it is baffled it can't get a quick deal with generous free trade concessions like Canada got a few years ago.
But EU nations like France want the access of U.K. companies to the EU market to be very strict because of the nation's sheer proximity and the similarity in goods and service that are traded. They want to make sure British firms won’t be able to undercut their continental rivals with weaker environmental and social regulation and excessive state subsidies.
France is viewed, especially by Britain, as one of the nations most unwilling to compromise, especially on the issue of French boats’ access to British fishing waters.
“Under any circumstance, our fishermen should not be sacrificed for Brexit," French President Emmanuel Macron said.
Since last month, the member states have also become ardent in demanding legal guarantees on governance of any deal after Johnson introduced legislation in September that breaches the Brexit withdrawal agreement he himself signed with the EU only last year.
It left trust in the Johnson government shattered, and the European Parliament, which must approve any deal, has vowed not to approve any trade deal if the U.K. government doesn’t withdraw this legislation. Britain says it will keep the legislation, with the option to use it if necessary.
Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo was in two minds. “It would be crazy not to have a deal, but it would be even more crazy to have a bad deal,” he said.
Sam Petrequin, Lorne Cook contributed to this report from Brussels, Jill Lawless from London.