Boris Johnson has warned that securing a Brexit trade deal in Brussels this week would be “very difficult” but claimed that the “power of sweet reason” could yet get an agreement over the line.
The British prime minister will meet Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission president, this week to try to resolve outstanding issues, although a date has yet to be set for the talks.
Michel Barnier, EU chief negotiator, and David Frost, his British counterpart, on Tuesday began putting together a dossier outlining the remaining sticking points before handing negotiations over to their political bosses.
Big differences remain on the fair competition “level playing field”, the governance of a trade deal and fisheries.
Mr Johnson told the BBC on Tuesday that “hope springs eternal” but warned that there were “limits beyond which no sensible, independent government or country could go and people have to understand that”.
He added: “We will see where we get to in the course of the next two days, but I think the UK government’s position is that we are willing to engage at any level, political or otherwise, we are willing to try anything.”
Mr Johnson’s reference to “the next two days” suggested talks with Ms von der Leyen could take place on Wednesday or even Thursday: at lunchtime on Thursday EU27 leaders gather in Brussels for a European Council meeting to which Mr Johnson is not invited.
In a call on Monday with Ms von der Leyen and European Council president Charles Michel, France’s Emmanuel Macron and Germany’s Angela Merkel agreed that the Brexit negotiations should be kept away from the summit agenda.
With little more than three weeks left until the end of the Brexit transition period — when Britain leaves the EU single market and customs union — EU diplomats said that there was a real possibility that talks would not succeed given the deep-rooted splits over fishing rights and the “level playing field”.
Clément Beaune, France’s Europe minister, acknowledged that there would need to be “compromises” on fishing rights, but stressed that there were limits to how far France would go to get a deal. “Sacrifice our fishing and our fishermen, that’s a no,” he said.
Brussels on Tuesday confirmed that the uncertain outcome of the talks meant it was getting closer to proposing no-deal contingency measures to address some of the worst potential impacts of failure. These would then need to be fast-tracked through the EU Council and parliament.
The European Commission has been under pressure from national governments for weeks to confirm it will take emergency measures to ensure, for example, that planes are still authorised to fly routes between the EU and the UK and that hauliers can cross the Channel.
EU officials said that leaders may take up the issue at this week’s summit if the commission has failed to act by then
Manfred Weber, the head of the centre-right European People’s Party group in the European Parliament, said it was a good signal that there would be a bilateral meeting between Mr Johnson and Ms von der Leyen.
But he warned that from the point of view of the parliament, which has to ratify any EU-UK deal, time was running out.
“We will not rubber stamp an agreement, that is why we still need time for making a fair assessment,” Mr Weber told reporters on Tuesday.
EU diplomats said that any UK attempts to negotiate directly with leaders such as Mr Macron and Ms Merkel would be resisted by European governments, which want Brussels to remain the UK’s counterpart for talks.
Two senior French officials confirmed on Tuesday that both Ms Merkel and Mr Macron have insisted that the negotiation remains between the UK and the EU and does not take any kind of bilateral turn.
Michael Roth, Germany’s Europe minister, said that any deal will depend on “political will in London”.
He said: “Our future relationship is based on trust and confidence, it is precisely this confidence that is at stake in our negotiations right now.”