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Brexit: Boris Johnson will fly to Brussels tomorrow for dinner meeting with Ursula von der Leyen

Johnson is set to meet Ursula von der Leyen tomorrow evening.

Johnson greets von der Leyen in London earlier this year (file photo)
Johnson greets von der Leyen in London earlier this year (file photo)
Image: PA Images

Updated Dec 8th 2020, 6:00 PM

BRITISH PRIME MINISTER Boris Johnson is to travel to Brussels tomorrow for an evening meeting with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen about progressing the EU-UK trade talks.

A spokesman for Johnson said: “The Prime Minister will travel to Brussels tomorrow for dinner with Ursula von der Leyen to continue discussions on the future relationship between the UK and the EU.”

EC president von der Leyen tweeted: “I look forward to welcoming UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson tomorrow evening. We will continue our discussion on the Partnership Agreement.”

Trade talks between the UK’s David Frost and the EU’s Michel Barnier paused after both teams moved as close towards a deal as political red lines would allow. Though a deal is reportedly 97% agreed, political leaders must make decisions on the final issues.

According to political statements, the confidential trade talks have faltered on the same issues that have plagued negotiations from the start: fishing rights; the level playing field measures aimed at preventing the UK undercutting the EU on standards and state subsidies; and the way for trade disputes to be discussed and resolved.

The two leaders agreed to meet in Brussels this week after their second phone call in 48 hours. The meeting is scheduled a day before a crucial EU summit on Thursday, when the leaders of the 27 member states will vote on a deal if it is agreed by then.

The meeting will be the first time Johnson has met von der Leyen in person since January, in a sign that talks are being stepped up ahead of the legal deadline for the UK to leave the Single Market and Customs Union on 31 December.

What has happened in the last few days?

Earlier, Johnson warned that reaching a Brexit deal was proving “very, very difficult” after two days of intense negotiations with the EU on the final details. But he added that he hoped the “power of sweet reason” would triumph, and a deal could still be done.

“Our friends have just got to understand the UK has left the EU in order to be able to exercise democratic control over the way we do things,” Johnson said in a message this morning.

Last night, a joint statement from Johnson and von der Leyen indicated that there are still three outstanding issues: and that despite additional efforts at the weekend, a face-to-face meeting between the political leaders was needed to resolve them.

A statement from a UK government source issued last night to several British political correspondents said that “no tangible progress” had been made during the negotiations between the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier and his UK counterpart David Frost.

The same source described the process as “looking very tricky”, adding that it “must now continue politically” with a warning that the talks could still collapse.

Barnier tweeted this afternoon that the EU would “never sacrifice our future for the present” as the deadlock continued.

London also insisted that talks on a UK-EU trade deal would not continue next year after Brussels appeared to leave the door open to further negotiations.

However, a spokesman for Johnson did not rule out MPs being made to sit over the Christmas period to vote on any deal if one was passed this week.

Problems and solutions 

Both sides are hoping to establish a trade relationship with zero tariffs and zero quotas, which would avoid further disruptions from 1 January.

On fisheries, the Times reported that negotiations have continued to stall over how long any transition period would be for European fishermen to adjust to agreed changes to fishing rights. The newspaper said that the EU wants a 10-year grace period, while the UK wants that scaled back to three years.

On RTÉ’s Six One News yesterday, Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney said that new problems rather than solutions had appeared in relation to fisheries.

On the level-playing field, the UK feels the level playing-field would impact on its post-Brexit sovereignty, while the EU believes it is required to protect the standards of its Single Market. 

However, news emerged this afternoon that suggests the sides are on the same page with regards to the State aid issue.

The UK and the EU announced that they have reached an agreement “in principle” on issues relating to how the Withdrawal Agreement can be implemented in practice – including the Northern Ireland Protocol.

It follows a meeting between Cabinet minister Micheal Gove and European Commission Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič – co-chairs of the joint committee examining how the Brexit divorce deal could be implemented.

As part of this, the UK agreed that it would remove controversial clauses in the Internal Market Bill that would have denied the EU a say in future trading arrangements between the North and Ireland.

The statement said:

In view of these mutually agreed solutions, the UK will withdraw clauses 44, 45 and 47 of the UK Internal Market Bill, and not introduce any similar provisions in the Taxation Bill.

Von der Leyen welcomed the news.

The news came despite MPs voting in the House of Commons yesterday to re-insert the clauses back into the Bill after they were taken out by the House of Lords.

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By the way – when is the actual deadline?

Despite progress made in the past few weeks on the most of the contentious issues, Taoiseach Micheál Martin said today the talks remain “very challenging”, and added that it would be a “significant failure” if no trade agreement is reached.

British Health Minister Matt Hancock said this morning that the UK was ready to proceed without a deal – if a no-deal scenario was what the EU decided.

Barnier has reportedly told MEPs the deadline for the talks succeeding is tomorrow, but Downing Street said it was prepared to continue talks for “as long as we have time available” – allowing the possibility for an agreement to be reached by Thursday.

The Taoiseach will travel to Brussels tomorrow evening to attend the European Council summit on Thursday – a gathering of the 27 EU leaders.

With reporting from Gráinne Ní Aodha and the Press Association.

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