The European Union and the United Kingdom will return to the negotiating table on Monday after agreeing to abandon a presumed make-or-break deadline for a post-Brexit trade pact.
EU President Ursula von der Leyen and Prime Minister Boris Johnson had said last week that they would decide whether an agreement was possible by the end of Sunday, but agreed in a crisis call to “go the extra mile”.
“Our negotiating teams have been working day and night for the past few days,” von der Leyen said in a video message, reading out a joint statement agreed by Johnson.
“We have consequently given our negotiators a mandate to continue the talks and to see if an agreement can be reached even at this late stage,” the leaders said.
They offered no new deadline, but legislator Mark Harper suggested that the extended talks could go directly to management, with less than three weeks until the UK leaves the single market by the end of the month.
“Many of us fully expect that it is quite possible that we will return to Parliament between Christmas and New Year to review this and vote through it if an agreement is reached,” he told the press association.
EU negotiator Michel Barnier and Britain’s David Frost held talks late on Saturday and early on Sunday. They have switched between the capitals, but a European official said they would stay in Brussels for the time being.
Barnier will inform European ambassadors on Monday morning about the current state of negotiations, said EU Council spokesman Sebastian Fischer.
Johnson insisted that a deal was far from certain.
“I’m afraid we’re still very far apart on some important things, but where there is life there is hope,” he said on Downing Street after informing his cabinet about the conversation.
“The UK will definitely not walk away from the talks. I still believe there is an agreement to be made if our partners want to do so,” he added.
Reports suggested that the two sides investigated a potential deal on how to respond if their rules differ over time and threaten fair competition.
But Britain can not compromise on the “fundamental nature” of Brexit, which controls British law and fisheries, the prime minister said.
Without a deal, cross-border trade will return to the rules of the World Trade Organization, with tariffs raising prices and generating paperwork for importers, and the failed negotiation could poison relations between London and the continent for many years to come.
“Anyway, whatever happens, Britain will do very, very well,” Johnson insisted.
‘No stone unfinished’
Ireland loses more than any other EU country if trade with its larger neighbor is disrupted and welcomed the attempt with caution.
“It is time to get nervous and let the negotiations move forward, even at this late stage. A joint statement on Brexit negotiations is a good signal. A settlement is very difficult, but possible,” tweeted Foreign Minister Simon Coveney.
However, the hardline faction of Brexit in Johnson’s own British Conservatives was not convinced, and MPs fired their own tweets and warned of possible concessions.
Much of the text of a possible trade agreement is said to be clear, but Britain and Brussels are fighting over a mechanism that allows retaliation if British and EU laws differ in a way that puts continental companies at a competitive disadvantage.
“The defense of the internal market is a red line for the European Union,” said an EU source. “What we have proposed to the United Kingdom respects British sovereignty.”
In London, the government insists that Britain is ready to leave the Union and manage its own affairs after 47 years of close economic integration.
Downing Street says it has mapped “every single predictable scenario” for problems after December 31, and “no one needs to worry about our food, medicine or vital supply chains.”
The government says it is ready to offer strong new support for sectors in the firing line such as agriculture and cars, but British business groups are appalled by the lack of clarity on future trade rules.
Scotland’s nationalist government, meanwhile, called for an end to the “crippling uncertainty” about a possible no-deal Brexit that comes on top of the coronavirus pandemic.
And the European Parliament is deeply unhappy that the time is running out for a thorough examination of all the pacts before the deadline for the end of the year.
“Irresponsible and bitter”, senior German member Bernd Lange tweeted about the protracted saga, warning that serious ratification is becoming “increasingly impossible”.