The prospect of a breakthrough in crunch Brexit talks between the UK and the European Union is “receding”, according to a senior British government source, with time rapidly running out to broker a deal.
The UK government figure told Reuters news agency on Thursday evening that the EU had disrupted the negotiations by attempting to wrench further concessions at the last minute.
“At the eleventh hour, the EU is bringing new elements into the negotiation. A breakthrough is still possible in the next few days but that prospect is receding,” the source said.
The UK formally left the EU on January 31.
Since then, it has been in a so-called transition period during which rules on trade, travel and business between the pair have remained unchanged to minimise disruption while negotiators hash out a deal on the terms of their future relationship.
The transition period, sometimes called the implementation period, will end on December 31.
Both sides have warned that time is fast running out to reach an agreement amid continued division over several issues, including fishing rights, competition rules and the governance of any trade treaty.
UK Business Secretary Alok Sharma on Thursday said talks were now at a “critical phase”.
“It is fair to say that we are in a difficult phase, there are some tricky issues still to be resolved,” he told Sky News.
“Right from the start of this process, we’ve always said that a deal can only be done if the EU recognises that the UK is a sovereign, independent nation,” Sharma added. “It is on the basis of that a deal will be done.”
European Council President Charles Michel said the next few days would decide matters and the 27 EU leaders holding a virtual summit on December 10-11 would take a position.
“The real question is – which political, economic, social project do they want for their own future?” Michel told a news conference. “And this is a question for the British government and for the British people.”
The bloc’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier is due to update member states in Brussels on Friday.
EU sources told Reuters that recent discussions with the UK had been centred around the so-called level playing field on state aid and fixing future minimum labour and environmental standards, as well as what “effective remedies” each side could take if the other let them slip.
France, meanwhile, warned that it could use its veto to block a post-Brexit deal with the UK if it does not meet Paris’s demands, especially on fishing.
“If there’s a deal that isn’t a good one, we’d oppose it,” Europe Minister Clement Beaune told Europe 1 radio on Friday.
Beaune added that “every country has the right to veto” whatever emerges from the last-ditch Brexit talks going on in London.
If the UK and EU fail to reach a deal, the pair’s five-year Brexit divorce will end in disorder just as Europe grapples with the vast economic cost of the COVID-19 outbreak.
A no-deal exit is the nightmare scenario for businesses and investors, who claim it would snarl borders, spook financial markets and sow chaos through the supply chains that stretch across Europe and beyond.
Forecasting considerable disruption ahead, experts on both sides of the English Channel this week warned the UK should brace itself for months of food shortages from the beginning of next year.
Marco Digioia, the secretary-general of the European Road Haulers Association, told UK newspaper The Independent that he was priming his membership for “huge bottlenecks between the UK and EU” after the end of the transition period.
“You can expect empty shelves in supermarkets from the first week of 2021,” he said. “It’s a complete nightmare scenario. It will last for weeks, even months.”
Duncan Buchanan, policy director for England and Wales at the UK’s Road Haulage Association, said that many EU truck drivers were refusing to travel to the UK from January 1 onwards in anticipation of long queues at border points.
“This will be more disruptive to supply chains than COVID has been,” he said.