The EU and UK will resume face-to-face Brexit trade talks on Saturday with negotiations still deadlocked barely a month before Britain exits the single market.
Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, confirmed on Friday that he and his team were no longer in quarantine following a Covid-19-scare and that physical negotiations could resume.
However, Mr Barnier tweeted that the “same significant divergences persist” between the two sides, adding that he and his team would travel to London this evening.
Briefing EU ambassadors on Friday, Mr Barnier said that virtual talks this week had been largely fruitless, with the two sides mired in disagreements over sticking points that have dogged the negotiations for months.
One EU diplomat said Mr Barnier conveyed a “sober feeling” that the talks might not work out. Another participant at the meeting said: “The situation is bleak.”
On the UK side the mood has been slightly more upbeat, with chancellor Rishi Sunak insisting this week that the “shape of a deal” was becoming clear. “With a constructive attitude and goodwill on all sides we can get there,” Mr Sunak told Sky.
But progress made in recent weeks of intensive talks has ground to a halt, officials said, with much of the trade treaty drafted but the entire agreement contingent on resolving faultlines present since the talks began in March.
The two sides have been focusing talks on key sticking points — rights for the EU fishing fleet in British waters, “level playing field” guarantees for business and the question of how to enforce any deal. Negotiators were forced to conduct their discussions online after a member of the EU team became infected with Covid-19 last week.
On the vexed issue of fish, Mr Barnier told diplomats that the UK was blocking any long-term arrangement, denying Europe’s fishermen the certainty they need. A key problem is that Britain still insists that access for European boats to its waters should hinge on annual negotiations.
The EU says there are no guarantees that a deal can be done as the clock ticks down to December 31. On Wednesday, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said that “genuine progress” had been made on a number of important questions but warned “frankly I cannot tell you today if in the end there will be a deal.”
The impasse in the talks has increased speculation about a possible high-level intervention from Boris Johnson and Ms von der Leyen to break the logjam. But EU officials said there were no decisions as yet on any such move. One warned that while the EU was ploughing on, there was no progress and no cause for optimism.
“They are still miles apart,” said another EU official.
There is little time left for any agreement to be legally checked, translated and ratified by the end of the year. The European Parliament may be forced to push its ratification vote to the end of December in order to give the negotiators more time for the talks.
The parliament’s political leaders, at a meeting on Thursday, left open the possibility to hold an additional voting session either before or after Christmas to vote on any deal that might be reached.
But parliament officials warned that, despite this show of flexibility, the timetable was already starting to become uncomfortably tight.
There was “broad agreement” that a special voting session will be needed after the parliament’s last scheduled one for 2020 in the week of December 14, he said.