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Brexit talks in 'difficult phase' as hopes of trade agreement recede

The UK claimed the EU was making fresh demands at the ’11th hour’.

Image: PA

Updated Dec 4th 2020, 12:15 PM

A UK CABINET minister has admitted that trade talks with the European Union are in a “difficult phase” after Government sources suggested hopes of a deal were diminishing.

Business Secretary Alok Sharma said there were “a number of tricky issues” still outstanding, but stressed that the UK negotiating team was working hard to seal a deal.

His remarks came as reports suggested Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, would remain in London to continue talks over the weekend, having initially planned to travel back to Brussels on Friday.

The European Commission would not confirm Barnier’s weekend travel plans and said only that a “full day of negotiations” was expected on Friday. 

Brexit talks are continuing today amid warnings the prospect of a breakthrough is “receding”.

Sharma, speaking to BBC Breakfast, confirmed that gaps remained between the two sides.

Fishing and the so-called “level playing field” aimed at preventing unfair competition on state subsidies and standards remain the main issues to be resolved in the talks.

“We are committed to reaching an agreement with the EU on this particular discussion that we are having,” he said.

“But, of course, time is short and we are in a difficult phase. There’s no denying that. There are a number of tricky issues that still have to be resolved.” 

Negotiations between the UK and EU seemed to stall yesterday – with Britain claiming Brussels was calling for fresh concessions at the 11th hour.

And with the Brexit transition period due to end on 31 December, there is little time to get a deal agreed by negotiators and approved by the EU’s leaders, Westminster and the European Parliament.

A senior UK government source said: “At the 11th 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.”

Fishing and the so-called “level playing field” aimed at preventing unfair competition on state subsidies and standards remain the main issues to be resolved in the talks.

European Commission spokesman Eric Mamer, asked for an update on fishing rights, told reporters in Brussels: “Today is still a day for negotiations, they are ongoing, so we can’t make any comments on the contents of what is being discussed.”

Earlier yesterday, Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney said there was a “good chance” of a trade deal.

Meanwhile, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson will press ahead with plans allowing ministers to tear up the Brexit divorce deal he has already agreed, despite the current round of UK-EU talks being at a critical stage.

The UK government will ask MPs to reinstate controversial legislation giving ministers the power to break international law by ignoring provisions in the Withdrawal Agreement relating to Northern Ireland.

MPs will vote on the UK Internal Market Bill on Monday, potentially throwing the talks on a UK-European Union trade deal into deep crisis unless an agreement can be reached by then.

The EU has already taken the first steps towards legal action over the legislation.

The UK government will also introduce the Taxation (Post-Transition Period) Bill, which reportedly includes measures to override parts of the divorce deal struck by the Prime Minister and the EU in 2019.

MPs will be asked to reinsert the controversial Northern Ireland provisions into the UK Internal Market Bill after the Lords voted to remove them.

Meanwhile, Labour is split over how to respond to a deal if it reaches the Commons, with senior figures at odds over whether to support it or abstain.

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Keir Starmer has confirmed there are differing opinions within the party on its approach to voting on a Brexit deal, but stressed that a trade agreement with the European Union was “in the national interest”.

And Labour former prime minister Tony Blair told the BBC’s Newscast podcast that “Brexit as a political argument is over” and that “there’s no point in raising (the) spectre” of a bid to rejoin the EU.

Blair said: “Brexit as a political argument is over, but you can’t pretend it’s not a big event that’s about to happen in practical terms and therefore short-term it’s going to be very challenging for the country, especially in combination with Covid.”

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