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Brexit: Taoiseach says 'very significant difficulties' remain as time ticks away

Michel Barnier said earlier: “There is a chance of getting an agreement but the path to such an agreement is very narrow.”

Updated Dec 18th 2020, 7:11 PM

EU CHIEF NEGOTIATOR Michel Barnier has warned there are “just a few hours” left to strike a post-Brexit trade deal with the UK as talks resumed today.

Barnier said that there is a chance of getting a deal in time for the end of the transition period on 31 December, but said that the path to a breakthrough is “very narrow”.

His warning came after Boris Johnson told European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen that the EU must “significantly” shift its stance on fishing for an agreement.

Today, Taoiseach Micheál Martin said “very significant difficulties” remain in the Brexit trade deal talks between the EU and UK, particularly in relation to fisheries.

His analysis came as leaders north and south of the Irish border voiced support for a trade deal.

The issue was discussed at Friday’s virtual meeting of the North South Ministerial Council.

Martin said: “If we get a substantive future relationship agreement between the UK and the EU that would make life much, much easier for all of us and particularly would give certainty and clarity to businesses and for workers north and south.”

The Taoiseach said a deal would present opportunities for everyone on the island of Ireland.

“Above all, it would give certainty and clarity to businesses on the island of Ireland, for workers on the island of Ireland in terms of their future and without question a deal would reduce very significantly any damage and disruption that would clearly arise from a no deal,” he added.

Stormont First Minister Arlene Foster said: “We all agree that the best way forward is to have an agreement on the future relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union.

“I think that’s very important. That is the one point of unanimity on Brexit I would say, but it’s something that I think you can take as very clear.”

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said: “We’re all agreed that a free trade agreement between the UK and EU is to our advantage and is in the interests of business and workers and farmers and fishermen north and south.

“So we will be using any influence we have to try to secure that agreement over the next couple of days.”

Varadkar warned port queues at Holyhead were likely due to stockpiling.

However, the Tanaiste warned that delays were likely on ferry travel between Ireland and Britain regardless of whether a UK/EU trade deal is struck or not.

“I think it’s likely that any delays at the ports that are happening at the moment are related to stockpiling, a lot of businesses are going to want to fill their warehouses in advance of there being a deal or no deal as the case may be when it comes to Brexit,” he told a press conference after Friday’s meeting of the North South Ministerial Council.

Earlier today

The EU set the latest deadline that an agreement must be ready by Sunday night in order to have enough time for MEPs to ratify it, while the House of Commons has been warned it may need to to hastily return from Christmas recess to vote on a deal.

“It’s the moment of truth,” Barnier told the European Parliament in Brussels.

“We have very little time remaining, just a few hours, to work through these negotiations in useful fashion if we want this agreement to enter into force on 1 January.

“There is a chance of getting an agreement but the path to such an agreement is very narrow.”

He said he was being “frank with you and open and sincere” when he said that he was unable to say what the result will be from the “last home straight of negotiations”.

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Johnson and von der Leyen took stock of negotiations in a call yesterday evening.

The EU chief acknowledged “big differences” remained between the two sides and stressed that “bridging them will be very challenging”.

Johnson tweeted after the call to say he told von der Leyen that “time is short and the EU position needed to change substantially”.

Downing Street said the British Prime Minister warned it looked “very likely” a deal would not be agreed unless the bloc shifted its stance.

Agreement was getting closer on the “level playing field” to ensure neither side could unfairly compete by eroding environmental standards, workers’ rights or state subsidies, but fishing policy remained a major sticking point.

Johnson warned that the UK “could not accept a situation” where it was unable to control access to its waters and would have fishing quotas that “hugely disadvantaged its own industry”, according to a No 10 spokeswoman.

“The EU’s position in this area was simply not reasonable and if there was to be an agreement it needed to shift significantly,” she added.

Barnier’s counterpart at No 10, David Frost, warned that progress “seems blocked” ahead of talks resuming in Brussels.

“The situation in our talks with the EU is very serious tonight. Progress seems blocked and time is running out,” he tweeted yesterday.

Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove, who has been in charge of the Government’s no-deal planning, said on Thursday that the chances of an agreement remained “less than 50%”.

He told the Commons Brexit committee the “most likely outcome” was that the transition period would end on 31 December without a deal.

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