The UK is still optimistic about striking a trade deal with the EU but warned that talks could collapse in June unless Brussels abandons its demands for a common fisheries policy and a level playing field, a source close to the UK’s negotiating team said.
The source said only “limited progress in bridging the gaps between us” had been made at last week’s talks, but there was “confidence that progress can be made quite quickly”.
The two sides will have to come closer to an agreement before a high-level meeting between ministers planned for June if the UK is to stay at the negotiating table.
Boris Johnson is expected to take a more active role in trying to help unblock talks if that date approaches with no breakthrough between negotiators at the level of officials.
The source close to the UK’s negotiating team said last week’s talks, conducted by video conference, had worked well but it was more difficult to build up a personal rapport when communicating remotely.
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He said he was “quite positive” about the probability of a trade deal before the end of the year, when the UK’s transitional period ends, echoing the prediction of Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office minister, that the chances of a deal were “definitely better than 2-1”.
Responding to claims that the chances of a Brexit deal in 2020 were “definitely better than 2-1”, an EU diplomat said the UK was making a high-stakes gamble.
“Everbody knows that the UK is the world of betting men, but betting alone won’t result in a trade agreement. The continent is as engulfed by Covid as the UK, so I wouldn’t bank on leaders having much time to cater to British fancy,” the diplomat said.
“Recovery comes first and last, and a trade deal with the UK is of course a necessary element, but not one that needs to be addressed urgently.”
However, the UK source said: “What is slowing us up is the EU’s insistence on extra provision, notably the level playing field area, aspects of governance and, of course, there is no meeting of minds on fisheries.
“If they continue to insist on their position on a so-called level playing field, and on continuing the common fisheries policy, for example, we are never going to accept that.
“Draw your own conclusion from that but I hope they will move on. There are some fundamentals that we are not going to change, we are not going to move on because, not so much that they are negotiation positions, as they are what an independent state does.”
He added: “I am confident we will get over that … but probably a bit more noise has to happen before we get to that point.”
Johnson has been facing calls to consider asking for an extension to the transition period to avoid the UK having to trade on World Trade Organization terms with the EU from the end of the year. However, No 10 has said an extension was not up for negotiation.
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The UK source also said it was “still entirely possible to conclude negotiations on the timetable that has been outlined”.
EU officials do not share London’s optimism. The chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, last week accused the government of running down the clock by “slow[ing] down discussions on important areas”.
An EU source said: “We are really not making any progress”, describing the latest series of talks as “a standstill round”. While this limited progress would be unsurprising in “normal” trade talks, the accelerated timetable and political attention being consumed by coronavirus, has raised questions in Brussels about striking a deal by the end of the year.
“If we had all the time in the world, I really wouldn’t be worried about it,” said the source. “But we are already [almost] into May now. Ratification is going to be extremely complex at the end of the year, so we need more time. We can’t plan for the speedy ratification we were hoping for, for many reasons, and everyone is distracted.”
Brussels officials also perceive a lack of top-level political engagement in the negotiations.
The EU has accused Johnson of backsliding on promises to uphold common standards on environment, health and workers’ rights – the so-called “level playing field”. Under pressure from coastal member states, such as France, Ireland, Belgium and the Netherlands, Barnier has also insisted there will be no trade deal without an agreement on fishing rights.
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