Post-Brexit trade talks between the EU and UK neared a decisive point on Monday as Europe pushed a leaders’ summit later in the week as the final chance for a deal.
Chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier told MEPs that Wednesday was the effective deadline for a breakthrough as talks with his UK counterpart David Frost dragged on in Brussels.
Barnier and Frost were wrangling once more on Monday before reporting back to their respective bosses, EU chief Ursula von der Leyen and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
The two leaders will speak by phone at around 5pm Brussels time (1600 GMT), a call that a diplomats said would assess where matters stood and would likely ask that the negotiators push ahead.
Barnier told a briefing of EU envoys that negotiations were still blocked over fishing rights, rules for fair trade and an enforcement mechanism, still the thorniest problems since talks began eight months ago.
All eyes are on an EU summit on Thursday, when the outline of a deal — or an admission of the failure to find one — will be put to the bloc’s 27 leaders.
A senior EU diplomat said the leaders would either “welcome a deal” if there was one there, or demand for the urgent preparation of contingency measures in the event talks failed.
“These are going to be decisive hours for the future of our UK relations, and I guess we are at the make it or break it moment,” the diplomat told reporters.
Ratcheting up the drama, Michael Gove, a top UK minister and close ally of Johnson was sent to Brussels for separate talks to discuss implementing the existing divorce treaty, which Britain has threatened to redraw.
Ireland’s Foreign Minister Simon Coveney told RTE News that Barnier was “very gloomy” and that the chief negotiator was “obviously very cautious about the ability to make progress today”. Time is pressing with European officials arguing the Brussels needs least two weeks to ratify an accord before the UK leaves the single market on Dec 31.
Britain left the EU on January 31 but will exit the EU’s single market at year’s end, following a transition period originally intended to give time to shape future ties.
The goal of the negotiations is to establish a trade relationship with zero tariffs and zero quotas in hopes of avoiding major disruptions come January 1.
Most sources agreed that the hardest issue was how to guarantee fair trade in future ties and establish a quick penalty mechanism if either side were to backtrack on, for example, environmental or health standards.
Britain is very reluctant to accept a broad and binding arrangement, seeing it as an infringement on its new-found sovereignty after 47 years of EU membership.
“In essence, if the talks fail now, the two sides didn’t manage to agree what constitutes foul play and what to do about it,” an EU diplomat said.
Johnson has insisted Britain will “prosper mightily” whatever the outcome of the talks, but he will face severe political turbulence if he cannot seal a deal.
Without a deal, tariffs would be levied on the huge volumes of trade passing between the UK and the European continent, through the Channel tunnel and by ship, starting on January 1.
Travellers between both sides would also be affected with further passport delays and red tape for foreign residents and businesses.
France meanwhile is seen as the most reluctant to compromise among the Europeans after repeated threats of a veto if a deal does not protect French interests.
“Barnier is trying to make a good deal. If minds are not ready for that in December 2020, let’s meet again next year,” said French MEP Nathalie Loiseau, a close ally of French President Emmanuel Macron.
In an unexpected twist, UK minister Gove travelled to Brussels to discuss the 10-month-old Brexit divorce deal, on the same day as British parliament was to consider a bill that would violate it.
European Parliament has said it will reject any trade deal if Britain delivers on its threat to undo the divorce agreement that guarantees an open border between UK-ruled Northern Ireland and the EU-member Republic of Ireland.