On Tuesday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson suggested that Britain could abandon post-Brexit trade talks, a day after he agreed to meet the head of the EU in a last-ditch attempt to move away from the stalemate.
With just over three weeks before Britain finally achieves its departure from the European Union bloc, Boris Johnson is due to meet European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in the coming days after moderators failed to seal the rifts.
The language on both sides has hardened since the talks faltered again. Johnson explained the situation as “very tricky,” and the EU’s negotiator said the bloc was fully united and would “never sacrifice our future for the present.”
Both sides have called on the other to compromise to get a deal over the line, and see the meeting as the last throw of the dice to see if there is a political way to narrow the positions.
In a sign of some movement in parallel talks on implementing an earlier deal on the terms of Britain’s exit – as opposed to the terms of future trade – ministers said they had reached an agreement regarding arrangements on the Ireland-Northern Ireland border.
As a result, Britain said it would now remove clauses in legislation in breach of the exit treaty signed in January.
Since Britain left the EU in January, the two sides have been stuck over three issues, raising the prospect of what many businesses say is their nightmare scenario – no agreement to govern around $1 trillion in annual trade.
Asked whether he would try until the last possible moment to do a deal on trade, Johnson told reporters: “Yeah, of course.”
“We’re always hopeful, but you know there may come a moment when we have to acknowledge that it’s time to draw stumps, and that’s just the way it is,” said Johnson, using a cricketing term for the end of the play.
“We will prosper mightily under any version, and if we have to go for an Australian solution, then that’s fine too,” he added. Australia has no free trade deal with the EU, which means the bulk of its trade is on World Trade Organization terms.
EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier was equally combative, saying on Twitter after briefing the bloc’s General Affairs Council: “Full unity. We will never sacrifice our future for the present. Access to our market comes with conditions.”
DAYS TO GO?
Before Johnson and von der Leyen sit down, their negotiators have been charged with preparing an overview of the remaining differences. Barnier said he had met Britain’s chief negotiator, David Frost, on Tuesday to qualify the next steps.
Britain, who joined the EU’s precursor in 1973, formally left on Jan. 31 but has since been in a transition period under which trade, travel, and business rules remain unchanged.
For weeks, the two sides have been haggling over fishing rights in British waters, ensuring fair competition for companies and ways to solve future disputes.
With little sign that the positions are narrowing, the European Commission said talks could continue after this year. Britain has repeatedly ruled this out.
Johnson, a leader of the 2016 referendum campaign to leave the EU, has repeatedly said any deal must respect Britain’s sovereignty. Von der Leyen does not want to offer too much to London for fear of encouraging other member states to leave and must also deliver a deal that does not alienate any of the 27.