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UK and EU promise 'intensive' negotiations in bid to reach agreement on key issues

Yesterday, Ursula von der Leyen warned that time was running out.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson and EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen
Prime Minister Boris Johnson and EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen
Image: Kirsty Wigglesworth/PA Images

Updated Oct 3rd 2020, 3:35 PM

THE EU AND the UK have said that “significant gaps” remain before a Brexit deal can be reached, with negotiators now expected to “work intensively” to try to reach an agreement. 

In a statement released this afternoon following talks between UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, both sides said that the two leaders “agreed on the importance of finding an agreement, if at all possible, as a strong basis for a strategic EU-UK relationship in future”.

They endorsed the assessment of both Chief Negotiators that progress had been made in recent weeks but that significant gaps remained, notably but not only in the areas of fisheries, the level playing field, and governance.

Both have “instructed their Chief Negotiators to work intensively in order to try to bridge those gaps” and promised to “speak regularly” about the issue. 

No 10 issued an identical statement on behalf of Boris Johnson. 

In a tweet this afternoon, von der Leyen said it was a “good phone call”. 

Before the meeting both Johnson and Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office minister overseeing the Brexit process, struck a positive tone when asked about the prospects of a trade deal.

‘The tunnel’

Von der Leyen’s recent remarks that talks need to “intensify” sparked speculation an agreement could be reached before Johnson’s deadline of the EU Council meeting on 15 October.

According to the Financial Times, both sides are set to agree to further last-ditch discussions – dubbed “the tunnel” – in London as they look to finalise an agreement.

Johnson, speaking to reporters on a construction site visit in west London this morning, made the case for a Canada-style deal with the EU.

Canada’s agreement with Brussels eliminated most, yet not all, trade tariffs but offered little on financial services – one of the UK’s key sectors.

Johnson said: “I think there’s a good deal to be done and everybody knows what we want to do.

“The EU has done a deal with Canada which is a long way away, big country but some way away.

“Here we are, we’re the biggest trading partner of the EU, their biggest export market, plus we’ve been a member for 45 years – we want a deal like Canada’s, we want that one.”

But in a pre-warning of the blame game with Brussels that could come if there is no agreement, he said an Australian-style trading arrangement – a Downing Street code term for a no-deal arrangement – would be “their call”.

He added: “If that’s not possible (a Canada-style deal), and that wouldn’t be our call that would be their call, then the alternative is to have a deal like Australia, which is another big country, further away, but it would work well and we could make it work very well.”

Speaking at the Conservative Party’s virtual conference, Gove said the EU had found the process of the UK shifting to “become good neighbours rather than uncomfortable lodgers” to be “difficult”.

But the Vote Leave campaigner said he is “optimistic” about the prospects of a deal.

He said: “I suspect there will be one or two ups and downs along the way but I am optimistic that we will get a deal.

“But if we don’t, we have been making extensive preparations to be ready for anything.

“The British people voted for us to leave, we are determined to honour that.

“But obviously if we can secure a negotiated outcome and a free trade agreement, that would be hugely helpful for sectors of the economy.”

Von der Leyen, speaking at a news conference in the Belgian capital on Friday, said she believes a deal is still possible but warned time is running out.

She said the “most difficult issues” – including fisheries and state aid rules – still have to be resolved if they are to get an agreement in place by the end of the Brexit transition period on 31 December.

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She said: “We are running out of time – around 100 days to the end of the year – so it is worth stepping up now.”

The UK’s chief negotiator Lord Frost, in a statement issued after his meeting with EU counterpart Michel Barnier on Friday, said while the “outlines” of an agreement are “visible”, there are still “familiar differences” to be overcome.

“I am concerned that there is very little time now to resolve these issues ahead of the European Council on 15 October,” he said.

With reporting from Dominic McGrath

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