Brussels has said that progress was made in this week’s Brexit trade talks before they were disrupted by a member of the EU’s negotiating team testing positive for Covid-19, with time running out to get a deal over the line.
Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president, said on Friday that “after difficult weeks with very, very slow progress, now we have seen in the last days better progress, more movement on important files”.
She specifically cited headway made by the EU and UK teams in settling rules on state subsidies for companies — a crucial part of the broader issue of creating a “level playing field” for business, one of the main remaining open points in the talks.
“There are still quite some metres to the finish line so there is still a lot of work to do,” Ms von der Leyen said. “Time pressure is high without any question.”
The sides are racing to conclude a deal that would allow sufficient time for the European Parliament to ratify the agreement before Britain’s Brexit transition period expires on December 31.
Five days of intensive negotiations in Brussels this week were brought to an abrupt end on Thursday when a high-level EU negotiator tested positive for coronavirus, leading to chief negotiator Michel Barnier and members of his senior team going into self-isolation.
Following an assessment of Belgian health guidance, no UK officials have been required to isolate as a result of the Covid-19 case, and the British team is expected to return to London shortly.
Talks will continue in a virtual format, something that Ms von der Leyen said would be made simpler thanks to extensive joint drafting of legal texts by the EU and UK in recent weeks.
“There’s now substance where you can go through line by line, word by word,” she added.
The two sides have the intention that physical negotiations will resume in London when possible.
The commission updated EU ambassadors on the state of the talks on Friday. An EU diplomat confirmed “tangible progress on a number of areas in the negotiations” while cautioning that “gaps are only slowly shrinking” on the core sticking points of EU fishing rights in British waters, fair competition conditions for business and enforcement of commitments.
The “hope is nevertheless that negotiations can be finalised quickly if and once the necessary political decisions are taken in London”, the diplomat said.
On the question of fishing, the UK this week proposed a fixed-term, transitional arrangement that would temporarily limit the reduction in EU quota rights.
There is growing concern in Brussels about the limited time left to ratify any deal that might be reached, given the need for any text to be checked and translated before it is formally sent for endorsement by the European Parliament. Officials said that the situation would become more complex if a deal was not reached by the end of next week.
EU governments also agreed at their Friday meeting that “contingency planning” for a possible failure of Brexit talks needed to be ramped up, despite hope that a positive outcome in the negotiations could still be achieved.
Brussels has yet to confirm when it will take emergency measures such as legal action to ensure planes can still take off and land and lorries can still cross the Channel after Britain’s transition period expires.
EU officials said Brussels was wary of doing anything that might disrupt the trade talks, including giving the impression that the bloc was ready to cushion the blow of a no-deal exit.