EUROPEAN leaders will meet to re-examine the post-Brexit talks on Thursday(15) under pressure from prime minister Boris Johnson to give ground or see Britain walk away with no trade deal.
The 27 leaders have tried to keep Brexit off the agenda at their recent summits, trusting in EU negotiator Michel Barnier to defend their interests as the former partners hammer out a new relationship.
But Johnson has warned that he could walk away from the negotiations unless the results of the latest two-day Brussels’ summit point the way to a breakthrough.
EU officials do not recognise his deadline, and insist they remain behind Barnier and united in their demands.
But they still believe a way can be found in the coming weeks to reach an agreement on fair competition rules and fishing quotas that both sides can accept.
During a cross-Channel call on the eve of the crunch talks, EU chief Ursula von der Leyen warned that there was “still a lot of work ahead of us” adding that Brussels wants a deal but “not at any price.”
“Conditions must be right, on fisheries, level-playing field and governance,” she warned.
A Downing Street spokesman said that during the call Johnson, talking to von der Leyen and EU summit host Charles Michel, had “expressed his disappointment that more progress had not been made over the past two weeks.”
“The prime minister said that he looked forward to hearing the outcome of the european council and would reflect before setting out the UK’s next steps,” the spokesman said.
The British side has accused Brussels of trying to force concessions by running down the clock, with the window narrowing on chances to agree and ratify a deal before the UK leaves the EU single market on December 31.
UK negotiators want Barnier’s team to produce draft legal texts to serve as the basis of the next rounds of talks, but EU officials say the sides are still not close enough on the remaining tough issues.
European diplomats say Brussels is still hoping for a deal, but is looking for a sign from Johnson that he is serious about compromise on the EU priorities.
According to draft summit conclusions, the EU will express concern “that progress on key issues of interest to the Union is still not sufficient for an agreement to be reached.”
They will invite Barnier to “intensify negotiations” to strike and implement a trade deal before January 1.
Diplomats said there had been some movement from Britain, but not enough to warrant locking the negotiators into a so-called “diplomatic tunnel” to force the talks over the finish line.
Britain left the European Union on January 31, but Barnier and UK negotiator David Frost have been locked in inconclusive talks on a follow-on arrangement for cross-Channel business.
Europe’s three main concerns are agreeing on the rules of fair competition, agreeing how these rules will be policed and securing access to UK waters for EU fishing fleets.
Britain wants to reassert sovereignty over its waters and refuse EU legal oversight over the deal — insisting it wants a simple trade deal of the kind the EU signed with Canada.
Northern fishing nations, in particular France, are holding a firm line on fishing, insisting that their boats operated in UK waters for centuries before the EU was formed and must be allowed to continue.