EU, UK leaders concede big gaps remain in post-Brexit talks

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An anti-Brexit demonstrator holds an EU flag in Parliament Square, in London, Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2020. Ursula von der Leyen said Wednesday she saw clear progress in the trade talks with the UK, turning a post-Brexit deal from a fleeting possibility into an ever more realistic possibility. (AP Photo/Alberto Pezzali)

BRUSSELS – The U.K. and the European Union provided sober updates Thursday on the state of post-Brexit trade discussions, with only two weeks to go before a potentially chaotic split.

While Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Union’s executive commission, noted “substantial progress on many issues,” she voiced concerns about the discussions taking place around fishing rights. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson also warned that that a no-deal outcome seemed “very likely.”

The two spoke early Thursday evening, their latest in a series of conversations in the past couple of weeks aimed at unclogging the talks which have moved at a snail’s pace ever since the U.K. left the EU on Jan. 31.

The U.K. still remains within the EU’s tariff-free single market and customs union until Dec. 31. A failure to reach a post-Brexit deal would likely lead to chaos on the borders at the start of 2021 as tariffs and other impediments to trade are enacted by both sides. The talks have got bogged down on three main issues — the EU’s access to U.K. fishing waters, the level playing field to ensure fair competition between businesses and the governance of any deal.

Following their latest conversation, von der Leyen warned that bridging big differences, in particular on fisheries, “will be very challenging.” Negotiations, she added, would continue on Friday.

According to a statement from Johnson’s office at 10. Downing Street, the prime minister stressed that “time was very short” and that it “now looked very likely that agreement would not be reached unless the EU position changed substantially.”

Johnson, like von der Leyen, focused on the lack of progress on fisheries. which has proved to be a hugely intractable issue in the talks — even though it accounts for only a very small amount of economic output.

On fisheries, the EU has repeatedly said it wants an agreement that guarantees a 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 to 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.