British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and European Commission President Ursula von derLeyen instructed their negotiators to resume trade talks on Sunday in a last ditch effort to bridge significant differences.
By acknowledging the distance in their positions, the leaders’ decision to resume talks that had stopped over three of the toughest issues suggests that both sides still believe they can secure a deal that regulates nearly $ 1 trillion in trading per year.
But it was not clear if any of them had changed their positions to allow a breakthrough that has proved difficult since Britain left the EU on 31 January and entered a transition period with most rules unchanged until the end of the year.
In a joint statement, the two leaders said that while acknowledging the seriousness of their differences, “we agreed that further efforts should be made by our negotiating teams to assess whether they can be resolved”.
“No agreement is possible if these problems are not resolved,” they said after speaking for more than an hour on Saturday. “We are therefore instructing our main negotiators to return tomorrow in Brussels. We will speak again on Monday evening.”
Talks were halted on Friday in the latest stumble in months of negotiations that have barely touched on three areas of disagreement – fishing, which ensures fair competition guarantees and ways to resolve future disputes.
Sources from both sides said French demands for fishing rights in British waters remained a key issue, and some in Johnson’s Conservative party suggested that EU officials had to persuade French President Emmanuel Macron to support a deal.
An EU official said that the break in the talks was about theater, rather than substance. “Every site needs a little drama to be able to sell this.”
Johnson, a pioneer of Britain’s campaign to leave the EU, must be able to convince Brexit supporters that he has secured a clean break and reclaim what he called during last year’s election campaign the country’s sovereignty.
Von der Leyen does not want to offer too much to London for fear of encouraging other Member States to leave and must also deliver a deal that does not make any of the 27 foreigners.
Irish Prime Minister Micheal Martin welcomed the decision to resume talks, saying on Twitter: “Every effort should be made to reach an agreement.”
If the two sides fail to reach an agreement, the five-year Brexit divorce will end dirty, just as Britain and Europe are grappling with the huge financial costs of the COVID-19 outbreak.
British and EU negotiators suspended trade talks on Friday to urge their leaders to try to close the gaps and reach an agreement after a week of negotiations failed to bridge significant discrepancies between the two sides.