If the UK and the EU cannot agree on a deal by December 31, the pair will default to WTO rules – an expensive scenario.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Tuesday that Britain and the European Union remain far apart, as he prepares to head to Brussels to try to salvage a post-Brexit trade deal.
“I am always hopeful, but I have to be honest with you, the situation at the moment is tricky,” he said, touring a hospital in London for Britain’s historic rollout of a coronavirus vaccine.
“Our friends have to understand the UK has left the EU to exercise democratic control. We are a long way apart still,” he added, ahead of face-to-face talks with EU commission chief Ursula von der Leyen later this week.
“It is looking very difficult at the moment. We will do our level best. I would say to everybody there are great options ahead for our country.”
Asked if he would try to do a deal right up until the wire, Johnson said: “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, referring to a cricketing term for the end of play.
“We will prosper mightily under any version and if we have to go for an Australian solution then that’s fine too.”
After the negotiating teams’ latest session in Brussels – and with just over three weeks until Britain leaves the EU’s single market on December 31 – Johnson held a phone call with von der Leyen late on Monday and secured an invitation to head over in person.
“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,” the pair said in a joint statement.
“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.”
It was not immediately clear whether Johnson’s visit would be a separate event, or whether he might be slotted in before an EU summit on Thursday, with the 27 EU leaders meeting in person.
The announcement of Johnson’s trip came after a pessimistic day of talks, during which EU negotiator Michel Barnier told sceptical members of the European Parliament that Wednesday was the effective deadline for a solution ahead of the summit.
Barnier and UK counterpart David Frost were due to hold another session on Tuesday in Brussels, to review their progress and draw up a report for their leaders.
“Both sides will undertake additional efforts to reach a deal,” Germany’s Europe minister Michael Roth said.
“We want to reach a deal, but not at any price. What we need is political will in London.
“Let me be very clear: our future relationship is based on trust and confidence. It is precisely this confidence which is at stake in our negotiations right now.”
In one olive branch, the UK government said it was ready to revoke clauses in Brexit legislation that have provoked legal action by the EU and undermined trust in London.
However, it kept the clauses intact as a “fall-back option” when the Internal Market Bill returned to debate in the House of Commons on Monday.
MPs voted to keep them in the text, rejecting a bid by the upper House of Lords to excise them.
Britain left the EU on January 31 and entered a transition period to allow negotiations to establish a trade relationship with zero tariffs and zero quotas.
Sources agree the hardest issue has been how to guarantee fair trade in future ties and establish a quick penalty mechanism if either side were to backtrack on, for example, environmental or health standards.
The EU fears Britain slashing its regulations, which could allow its companies to undercut European firms.
But Britain is very reluctant to accept a broad and binding arrangement, seeing it as an infringement of its new-found sovereignty after 47 years of European integration.
Fishing also remains a sticking point.