EU's chief negotiator still hopes to clinch EU-UK trade deal

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European Commission's Head of Task Force for Relations with the United Kingdom Michel Barnier talks to the media outside the EU headquarters in Brussels, Monday, Dec. 14, 2020. Teetering on the brink of a no-deal Brexit departure, Britain and the European Union stepped back from the void Sunday and agreed to continue trade talks, although both downplayed the chances of success. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)

BRUSSELS – European Union chief negotiator Michel Barnier said Monday he still firmly believes that a post-Brexit trade agreement is possible, and whittled down the major outstanding disputes to be settled ahead of the New Year to just two.

Britain, meanwhile, said the negotiations now taking place in Brussels could continue for some time yet and indicated it was not planning to pull the plug on the talks as long as progress was possible.

Barnier said the nine-month negotiations had come down to finding some agreements on fair-competition rules and fishing rights, no longer mentioning the issue of legal mechanisms for resolving future disputes.

“Two conditions are not met yet," he said as he entered a meeting to brief the EU's 27 nations on progress in the talks. He is expected to continue negotiations with his U.K. counterpart, David Frost, later on Monday.

“This deal, it is still possible," he added.

In Britain, Business Secretary Alok Sharma said “the fact that we’re continuing to have these discussion shows that there is an opportunity to try and make some progress."

“Our intention is not to walk away. We will continue to talk as long as there is the possibility of reaching a deal,” he said.

Both sides are teetering on the brink of a no-deal Brexit departure, but have committed to a final push ahead of Jan. 1, when a transitional period following Britain's Jan. 31 departure from the bloc is to end.

On Sunday, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen ditched a self-imposed deadline and promised to “go the extra mile” to clinch a post-Brexit trade agreement that would avert New Year’s chaos and costs for cross-border commerce.

With traffic jams already hampering access to cross-Channel ports like Dover in England and Calais in northern France, the time pressure should start to have an impact, specifically on London, said Fabian Zuleeg, head of the EPC think tank.

“We are seeing the lorries queuing. We are seeing that there are difficulties with some of supply chains. We’re seeing also that business is extremely unhappy about still being in a high degree of uncertainty with only a few days to go.” Zuleeg said.

Barnier is willing to accept British trade with no tariffs or quotas, but only if the U.K respects the rules and regulations that have made the EU's single market of 450 million consumers so successful.

“Free and fair competition, fair and free, equitable and open, the two go together," Barnier said.

Johnson, however, says he does not want British business to be hemmed in by EU restrictions, especially if those restrictions would have to be progressively adapted to higher mainland standards in the future.

On fisheries, Barnier demanded “an agreement that guarantees a reciprocal, I insist, reciprocal access to markets and waters." EU fishermen are keen to keep working in British waters and the U.K. seafood industry is extremely dependent on exports into the 27-nation bloc.

Johnson has made fisheries and U.K. control over its waters a key demand in the long saga of Britain's departure from the EU. It has been four-and-a-half years since Britons voted narrowly to leave the EU and — in the words of the Brexiteers’ slogan — “take back control” of the U.K.’s borders and laws.

Johnson said over the weekend the “most likely” outcome was that the two sides wouldn’t reach a deal and would trade on World Trade Organization terms, with the tariffs and barriers that would bring.

But after Barnier briefed the ambassadors of the EU nations, one EU diplomat said there might be a narrow path to an agreement visible "if negotiators can clear the remaining hurdles in the next few days." The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the talks were still ongoing.


Kelvin Chan contributed from London, Mark Carlson from Brussels


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