EU and UK negotiators will make a further effort next week to try to hammer out a trade deal, with both sides warning that very serious divergences remain in the talks.
Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, briefed national ambassadors and MEPs at separate meetings on Wednesday that two weeks of intensified talks had left the two sides far apart on issues such as “level playing field” conditions for business and fishing access rights.
In a tweet on Wednesday afternoon, Mr Barnier said: “Despite EU efforts to find solutions, very serious divergences remain” on the three main outstanding issues. “These are essential conditions for any economic partnership.”
In response his British counterpart David Frost said: “Progress made, but I agree with Michel Barnier that wide divergences remain on some core issues. We continue to work to find solutions that fully respect UK sovereignty.”
With time running out to secure an agreement before Britain’s Brexit transition period ends on December 31, talks are now paused while both sides reflect on next steps. Formal talks are expected to resume in London on Sunday or Monday.
Mr Barnier told MEPs that the two sides are not yet “on a trajectory for a deal”, with the chief negotiator stressing the need for the UK to give more ground.
He specifically complained that the EU side received a firm pushback from British negotiators this week in efforts to address the remaining key sticking points, with progress grinding to a halt.
According to people present at the Wednesday meetings, Mr Barnier highlighted that even talks on the issue of “non-regression” from existing environmental and labour standards had failed to gain traction, despite this not being seen as the most difficult level-playing-field issue.
An EU official with knowledge of the talks said that non-regression from EU norms, coupled with “evolution” clauses aimed at promoting broadly similar changes to rules over time, were “essential” to the EU.
However a UK official was equally adamant that evolution clauses were a “non-starter”.
One person familiar with the UK’s negotiating strategy said it was now up to Mr Johnson whether and how he wished to move forward when talks recommenced. They added that the next few days would be “critical” as both sides reflected on whether they wanted a deal, and what compromises they were prepared to make to get one. “More of the same is clearly not going to cut it,” the person said.
One EU diplomat warned: “Given this situation a no-deal outcome still can’t be excluded.”
The limited progress and the continuation of talks in London means that tentative plans for a discussion next week between Mr Barnier and national European affairs ministers have been scrapped. The meeting had been scheduled in the hope of progress in the EU-UK negotiations.
The two sides face an approximate mid-November deadline to broker an agreement in time for it to be ratified by Westminster and by the European Parliament.
Mr Barnier told ambassadors that a deal would require further movement from the UK, and that talks may need to run on beyond next week if a deal is in sight but not yet concluded.