Prime Minister Boris Johnson is expected to head to Brussels for talks with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in an attempt to avert a no-deal Brexit, as "significant differences" remain between the UK and the EU on critical issues despite the transition period's looming year-end deadline, reported the BBC.
According to the outlet, it is unclear when the PM would go, with Wednesday or Friday suggested as the "most likely" dates.
Hopes are being pinned on the face-to-face meeting between the officials, as political intervention at the highest level was called for after rounds of fruitless negotiations between the two camps failed to break a stalemate on the main sticking points.
Conditions for Deal ‘Not There’
On Monday an almost 90 minute phone conversation between the two leaders once again ended inconclusively, with a joint statement deploring that the conditions for a deal were "not there".
“As agreed on Saturday, we took stock today of the ongoing negotiations. We agreed that the conditions for finalising an agreement are not there, due to the remaining significant differences on three critical issues: level playing field, governance and fisheries,” said the statement.
With @BorisJohnson we took stock of the negotiations. The conditions for an agreement are not there due to remaining differences on critical issues.— Ursula von der Leyen (@vonderleyen) December 7, 2020
We asked our Chief Negotiators to prepare an overview of the remaining differences to be discussed in person in the coming days. pic.twitter.com/rWCWlMz0dv
The second call between Johnson and Von der Leyen in the past few days came after UK negotiator Lord David Frost and his EU counterpart Michel Barnier had put a week of post-Brexit trade talks on hold on 4 December, saying that "conditions for an agreement are not met, spent the day talking in Brussels.
After one week of intense negotiations in London, together with @DavidGHFrost, we agreed today that the conditions for an agreement are not met, due to significant divergences on level playing field, governance and fisheries.— Michel Barnier (@MichelBarnier) December 4, 2020
"We asked our chief negotiators and their teams to prepare an overview of the remaining differences to be discussed in a physical meeting in Brussels in the coming days," said the statement by the two leaders on Monday.
After the phone call between Johnson and the European Commission president, a senior UK government source was cited by the BBC as warning a deal may not be possible.
This sounds very tricky indeed, this according to senior govt source - “Talks are in the same position now as they were on Friday. We have made no tangible progress. It’s clear this must now continue politically."....— Laura Kuenssberg (@bbclaurak) December 7, 2020
While admitting that time was in “very short supply”, Downing Street said on 7 December that it was prepared to continue talks for “as long as we have time available”.
Michel Barnier, however, told MEPs the deadline for talks succeeding was Wednesday, the eve of the last EU leaders' summit of the year in Brussels, slated for 10-11 December.
A new deal has to be unanimously approved by the EU's 27 member states and various European parliaments, as well as Britain's, by 31 December, when Britain's transition period is set to expire.
The negotiators now meet Tuesday to draw up a list of the remaining crucial differences between the two sides.
The UK left the European Union on 31 January, with the transition period until 31 December 2020 granted for the sides to negotiate a deal that would shape their relationship post-Brexit. In the case of a no-deal scenario, border checks and taxes will be introduced for goods travelling between Britain the EU, with the UK's Office for Budget Responsibility assessing that leaving the EU customs union and single market without a trade deal in place could lead to a 2 percent reduction in national income next year.
Issues ‘Bedevilling’ Trade Deal Talks
The three remaining sticking points in talks between the UK and the EU are: fishing, competition regulations and the governance of a deal.
Both camps have been blaming one another for intransigence, with Boris Johnson lately digging in his heels against “unprecedented” 11th-hour Brexit demands from Brussels, ostensibly put forward under pressure from French President Emmanuel Macron. The French leader has adopted a hard line on access to UK fishing waters.
The UK and EU are also at loggerheads over the so-called "level playing field" - a set of shared rules and standards aimed to ensure that businesses in one country do not have an unfair advantage over their competitors in others.
In what is perceived as a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel, the negotiating sides appear to be moving closer on the issue over last year's Withdrawal Agreement.
Ahead of Johnson’s phone conversation with the EU chief, the UK said it was willing to revoke clauses in the Internal Market Bill – the Brexit legislation that would allow the UK to breach international law when it comes to customs arrangements in Northern Ireland.
The statement came in anticipation of the clauses being added back into the bill by the House of Commons, which had voted on Monday to reinsert the controversial sections of the legislation.
The bill is now going back to the Parliament's House of Lords, which had previously voted to remove the sections of the legislation.
As the scramble to salvage negotiations continues to gather pace, senior Brussels official were quoted as saying EU leaders would either “welcome a deal” if there was one, or urge preparation of contingency measures.
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,” they said.