Boris Johnson is to travel to Brussels for make-or-break talks on a UK-EU trade deal, with negotiations deadlocked and warnings that there was “every chance” the negotiations may fail.
The British prime minister will meet Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission president, “in the coming days” as nine months of talks on a post-Brexit relationship between the two sides come to a head.
“We have made no tangible progress,” said a senior British official. “It’s clear this must now continue politically. Whilst we do not consider this process to be closed, things are looking very tricky and there’s every chance we are not going to get there.”
Mr Johnson and Ms von der Leyen agreed on Monday after a 90-minute phone call that their chief negotiators should “prepare an overview of the remaining differences to be discussed in person”.
Timings have not been confirmed, but the meeting could take place on Wednesday ahead of Thursday’s European Council meeting in Brussels. Both sides said Mr Johnson would not attend the 27-country summit.
Number 10 played down the idea that the scheduling of face-to-face talks might be a positive sign. One ally of the prime minister said: “The differences are every bit as big as they were before.”
The fact that talks are continuing in spite of disagreements on a fair competition “level playing field”, fisheries and the governance of any trade deal offered some hope that an agreement was still possible.
But Ireland’s foreign minister said there had been “no progress at all” in two days of intensive talks since the negotiation resumed on Sunday, saying other EU member states were becoming “increasingly frustrated”.
“In Brussels certainly the mood is starting to shift to contingency planning for a no-deal,” Simon Coveney told RTE television after arriving in Dublin from talks in Brussels.
Mr Johnson’s allies have made it clear the prime minister is willing to walk away from talks, but Downing Street said he remained “keen” to strike a free trade agreement on the right terms.
The call between Mr Johnson and Ms von der Leyen was not intended to be an opportunity to cut deals on key sticking points, but rather to take stock of the two sides’ existing positions. Officials on both sides of the negotiations remained downbeat about the significant divisions that remain in key areas of the negotiations, and were making no predictions about the likelihood of a deal.
Things remain “very difficult”, said one EU official. The fact that Mr Johnson was coming to Brussels showed “things are not falling off the cliff, but we haven’t solved the issues in the past days that the negotiators were here. It shows more work needs to be done.”
Officials on both sides stressed that it was not surprising that Mr Johnson should be the leader who travelled, given that the two leaders last face-to-face meeting was in London.
People briefed on the call said that both sides felt it was time for political-level talks and Ms von der Leyen suggested she should play host after going to Downing Street earlier this year.
The independent Office for Budget Responsibility has warned that a no deal Brexit on January 1 would inflict a 2 per cent hit on the UK economy — about £40bn — and add around 300,000 to the jobless total next year.
Sterling fell as much as 1.6 per cent against the US dollar to touch a two-week low just above $1.32, before picking up later in the day, leaving it 0.8 per cent lower at $1.33 by late afternoon in London.
People briefed on the talks said that negotiators on Monday had sought to tackle continued deep-rooted splits over fishing rights in UK waters and “level playing field conditions” for business.
On fisheries, a problem going into Monday’s talks was the UK’s continued resistance to guaranteeing access for European boats to its waters 6-12 nautical miles from the coast, as well as the length of a transition period covering fishing grounds further out.
Splits over the level playing field concern the EU’s determination to secure means of taking rapid redress against the UK if it seeks to gain an unfair competitive advantage through the use of subsidies or through having weaker environmental and labour regulations.
Earlier on Monday Mr Johnson attempted to lift the gloom hanging over the talks by offering to scrap controversial lawbreaking clauses from UK legislation relating to Northern Ireland.
Mr Johnson said that if the two sides reached an agreement on the operation of the NI protocol, part of Britain’s EU withdrawal deal, the contentious clauses would not be necessary.
Although welcomed in Brussels, one EU diplomat said that the move amounted to the UK “trying to use rogue behaviour as leverage”.
Mr Johnson had insisted on clauses in the UK internal market bill as a “safety net” to ensure the free flow of goods between the mainland UK and Northern Ireland in the event London and Brussels could not reach an understanding over how to apply last year’s deal and trade talks failed.
Ministers admitted the clauses would allow ministers to break international law, since the legislation would override Britain’s withdrawal treaty with the EU; the issue has dogged trade talks ever since.