The United Kingdom and the European Union have just hours left to navigate the very narrow path to a trade deal that would prevent the most turbulent finale to the Brexit crisis in less than two weeks, EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier has said.
“It’s the moment of truth,” Barnier told the European Parliament in Brussels on Friday. “There is a chance of getting an agreement but the path to such an agreement is very narrow.”
“We find ourselves in a very serious and sombre situation,” he said. “We have very little time remaining, just a few hours to work through these negotiations in a useful fashion if we want this agreement to enter into force on the first of January.”
The UK and EU negotiators are set to resume talks over the post-Brexit trade deal amid an ongoing deadlock over several key issues threatening to scupper their efforts.
The negotiations on Friday come less than two weeks before the UK finally leaves the bloc’s orbit on December 31, and follow recent warnings from London and Brussels that it was becoming more likely they would fail to reach an agreement.
Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson, visiting Bolton in northern England, said on Friday: “Our door is open. We will keep talking but I have to say that things are looking difficult and there’s a gap that needs to be bridged.
“We have done a lot to try and help, and we hope that our EU friends will see sense and come to the table with something themselves,” he said.
The so-called transition period – during which the UK has remained in the EU’s single market and customs union, despite having formally left the bloc in January – draws to a close at the end of this year.
Both sides have said they are keen to strike an agreement before then in order to avoid a messy divorce on January 1, but those ambitions have been hampered by disagreement over fishing rights, competition rules and the governance of any deal.
“It is a very serious situation. We will test every route to seeking a free trade agreement with the European Union, but we cannot do so at the expense of our national sovereignty,” Britain’s schools minister Nick Gibb told UK broadcaster Sky News on Friday.
“The EU will have to move if we are going to secure that deal,” he said, adding the UK was “prepared for a no free trade deal arrangement”.
Gibb was echoing a similar message from Britain’s chief negotiator David Frost and Johnson, who spoke to European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen late on Thursday to take stock of the situation.
Johnson’s office said time was running out and warned a no-deal scenario was “very likely” unless the EU changed its position “substantially”.
Von der Leyen, for her part, said “substantial progress” had been made on several issues but also warned that bridging the differences separating the two sides in other areas, particularly fisheries, would be “very challenging”.
Johnson has made fisheries and the UK’s control over its waters a key demand in the years-long Brexit saga, which began in June 2016 when Britons voted narrowly to leave the bloc and – in the words of pro-Brexiteers – “take back control” of the country’s borders and laws.
Any failure to strike a deal would likely result in an economic hit for both sides, major disruption at UK-EU border points and political acrimony.
Such a scenario would see the pair default to World Trade Organization (WTO) rules from January 1 – bringing financial tariffs, quotas and other regulatory barriers into play and potentially affecting hundreds of billions of pounds worth of annual trade between the UK and the EU.