Face-to-face negotiations between the United Kingdom and the European Union over a trade deal have restarted in a last-ditch attempt to find agreement with just five weeks to go before their current relationship ends.
EU negotiator Michel Barnier, who arrived for the talks in London on Saturday, said on Friday night he was “very happy” to be back in the city and would keep working with “patience and determination”.
Barnier and the UK’s chief negotiator David Frost are working to secure a deal before the UK’s transition period with the EU ends on December 31.
It is the first time they have met face-to-face since Barnier went into self-isolation after a member of his team caught the novel coronavirus.
Both sides are calling for the other to compromise on the three main issues of contention – fishing, state aid and how to resolve any future disputes.
The UK left the bloc on January 31 this year and a “no-deal” final exit would snarl borders, spook financial markets and disrupt delicate supply chains that stretch across Europe and beyond – just as the world grapples with the vast economic cost of the COVID-19 outbreak.
A no-deal scenario is widely expected to cause economic chaos, with customs checks required at the borders.
The concern is particularly acute on the border between EU member Ireland and the British province of Northern Ireland, where the sudden imposition of a hard border threatens the delicate peace secured by 1999’s Good Friday Agreement.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson spoke to Irish Prime Minister Micheal Martin on Friday evening, underlining his commitment to reaching a deal that respects the sovereignty of the UK, according to a statement.
On the major sticking point of fishing, some media reports on Friday suggested that the UK had rejected an EU proposal on the value of fish quota that European fleets catch in British waters that are due to be restored to the UK.
The Telegraph newspaper reported the EU was set to concede on Brexit fishing rights.
A failure to reach an agreement would see the UK and the EU trading on World Trade Organization terms, with tariffs immediately imposed on goods travelling to and from the continent.
A key sticking point is the EU’s demand for a post-Brexit “level playing field”, with punishing trade penalties if either side diverges from agreed standards or state aid regulations, but the UK does not want to be bound by rules made in Brussels.
The talks have already pushed on much longer than expected and time is running out for ratification of any deal by the European Parliament by the end of the year.
Members of the European Parliament have expressed frustration with the delays and may have to ratify a deal between Christmas and the New Year.
In Brussels, one source close to the talks said she would “eat my hat” if there was a deal by Monday, echoing a chorus of complaints that Johnson was playing the clock.