Prime Minister Boris Johnson was in Brussels on Wednesday, with Britain’s fading hopes for a post-Brexit trade deal pending crisis talks with EU President Ursula von der Leyen.
Johnson’s line back to the city where he once made his name as an EU-bashing newspaper reporter marks the last chance for a breakthrough before Britain leaves the EU’s single market.
Talks are being blocked on the issue of fair competition, and Britain is refusing to accept a mechanism that allows the EU to retaliate swiftly if UK business rules change in a way that puts European companies at a disadvantage.
EU negotiator Michel Barnier and his British counterpart, David Frost, have narrowed the gaps during eight months of talks, but London insists they will regain full sovereignty by the end of the year after half a century of close economic integration.
If the UK leaves the EU single market in three weeks without a follow-up trade agreement, the delays that travelers and freight will face at their borders with the European Union will be exacerbated by import duties that will raise prices.
Johnson spoke to Von der Leyen on Monday by telephone to secure the last chance dinner invitation after Barnier and Frost’s negotiations broke down without an agreement.
He will travel by plane and arrive late on Wednesday for talks in the Berlaymont building, the EU headquarters he once incorrectly reported was intended for demolition when he covered Brussels as a newspaper journalist in the early 1990s.
But officials on both sides expressed pessimism ahead of the last ditch.
“I’m always hopeful, but I have to be honest with you, the situation at the moment is difficult,” Johnson said as he toured a London hospital on Tuesday.
“Our friends must understand that Britain has left the EU to exercise democratic control. We are still far apart,” he said.
Barnier, meanwhile, gave a downward briefing to European ministers ahead of Thursday’s summit of EU leaders and then tweeted: “We will never sacrifice our future at the moment. Access to our market comes with conditions.”
A leading EU source said Brussels needed Johnson to decide on compromises.
“The fixed point in the negotiations is the equality clause that the EU is calling for to avoid distortions of competition if the UK refuses to adapt over time to EU tax, social and environmental standards,” he said.
But a source from the British government warned: “We must be realistic that an agreement may not be possible, as we will not compromise on regaining British sovereignty.”
However, the source added: “If we can make progress on a political level, it could allow Lord Frost and his team to resume negotiations in the coming days.”
On Thursday, EU leaders including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron will be in Brussels for a two-day summit dominated by an EU budget conflict, but Johnson is not expected to face them.
Even as London and Brussels try to create a new trade relationship, the separate and politically troubled issue of Northern Ireland has loomed in the background.
Northern Ireland will have Britain’s only land border with the block from next year, and that border is intended to remain open as part of the 1998 peace agreement that ended three decades of violence over British rule.
Johnson’s government had upset Dublin and Brussels by introducing a UK single market bill that would override the EU’s withdrawal agreement, which forced London to respect Northern Ireland’s unique status.
But a certain amount of confidence was restored on Tuesday, when the British senior minister Michael Gove and the European Commission’s vice-president Maros Sefcovic said that “in principle” border arrangements had been agreed.
The breakthrough covers goods that go from the British mainland to the province and onwards to the EU’s internal market via Ireland.
As a result, London will cut three controversial clauses in the bill that goes through the British Parliament that would have denied Brussels a word on future trade arrangements between the province and Ireland.
Not just choreography
It could pave the way for Johnson’s journey after Germany’s European Affairs Minister Michael Roth demanded that London restore “confidence and trust”.
“We want to reach an agreement, but not at any price. What we need is political will in London,” he said.
The Irish Prime Minister Micheal Martin welcomed the border agreement, but warned that the broader issue of a trade agreement has not yet been resolved.
“This is not about choreography, as some may think. There is a very serious issue of a level playing field that will be difficult to resolve,” he told the Dublin Parliament.
“And unfortunately, we face the prospect of a no-deal Brexit if something does not break it in the next day or two.”