European Union chief negotiator Michel Barnier will travel to London late on Friday in a last-ditch attempt to reach a Brexit trade deal as the two sides try to resolve significant differences over fishing and competition policy.
With just five weeks left until the United Kingdom finally exits the EU’s orbit on Dec. 31, both sides are calling on the other to compromise to avoid a tumultuous finale to the five-year Brexit crisis.
Face-to-face negotiations will resume shortly after they had to be suspended last week when one of Barnier’s team tested positive for the coronavirus.
“Same significant divergences persist,” Barnier said on Twitter. “Travelling to London this evening to continue talks.”
Recounting the contents of a closed-door briefing given by Barnier to national diplomats on the progress of the negotiations, a senior diplomat told Reuters it was “not a particularly bright picture”.
The talks are still snagged on three main issues -- fishing, state aid and future dispute resolution -- but neither side has so far shown a willingness to shift enough on them to allow a breakthrough.
Another source said Barnier had told the meeting in Brussels he was not able to say yet whether a new UK trade deal would be ready in time.
“Differences persist on the three controversial issues,” the senior diplomat said.
Barnier told the envoys that if there is to be a deal it will take “a few more days”.
The first sign of movement -- either towards a deal or that talks are crumbling -- is likely to be a call between British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen. No such call has yet been announced.
A source close to the negotiations said it had been “tough” recently to make progress.
Britain formally left the EU on Jan. 31 but has been in a transition period since then under which rules on trade, travel and business remain unchanged. From the end of the year it will be treated by Brussels as a third country.
The two are trying to strike a trade deal on goods that would safeguard nearly $1 trillion in annual trade and the peace in British-ruled Northern Ireland.
The latter is a priority for U.S. President-elect Joe Biden, who has warned British Prime Minister Boris Johnson he must uphold the 1998 U.S.-brokered Good Friday Agreement that ended three decades of sectarian conflict.
Von der Leyen said on Wednesday the EU was ready for the possibility of Britain leaving the bloc without a new trade accord despite “genuine progress” in the tortuous Brexit talks.
A “no deal” exit would snarl borders, spook financial markets and sow chaos through the delicate supply chains that stretch across Europe and beyond -- just as the world grapples with the vast economic cost of the COVID-19 outbreak.