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It will be 'challenging' to overcome final trade-talk issues, says von der Leyen after call with Johnson

Several Brexit deadlines have come and gone but this move adds extra pressure to ongoing negotiations.

Image: AP/PA Images

Updated Dec 17th 2020, 7:45 PM

EUROPEAN COMMISSION PRESIDENT Ursula von der Leyen has said that “substantial progress” has been made on many issues in post-Brexit trade deal negotiations – but “big differences remain” and “bridging them will be very challenging”.

A spokesperson for UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that negotiations were “now in a serious situation”.

He said that an agreement wouldn’t be reached unless the EU position “changed substantially” – with this understood to be referring to fisheries issues.

“[Johnson] said that we were making every effort to accommodate reasonable EU requests on the level-playing field, but even though the gap had narrowed some fundamental areas remained difficult.”

The spokesperson said that the EU position on fisheries was “simply not reasonable”, and it needed to “shift significantly” if there is to be a deal.

These statement was given after the two leaders spoke by phone at 7pm Irish time about the ongoing trade talks ahead of the legal deadline of 31 December for the UK to leave the Single Market and Customs Union.

Earlier, the European Parliament said it will not ratify any post-Brexit trade deal by the end of the year if they cannot access its text by Sunday.

The declaration from the Conference of Presidents, initiated by Spanish member Iratxe Garcia Perez, states they are ready to hold an extraordinary session at the end of December if an agreement is reached by midnight on Sunday 21 December.

It also calls for a provisional text of the Brexit agreement to be made available to European Parliament members as soon as possible.

The declaration acknowledges the “exceptional nature” of the proceedings and commends the “dedicated and professional work” of Brexit negotiators in the UK and EU.

It also welcomes efforts to avoid a no-deal scenario and “the huge negative impact it would have on citizens and businesses”.

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar was asked on RTÉ’s Prime Time tonight whether there was ‘grandstanding’ by the British side over the state of negotiations.

He said that “there’s always a little bit of brinkmanship, there’s always a certain degree of political theatre” in trade talks.

That doesn’t mean this deal is guaranteed, but I do think both sides are edging towards a deal, and I think that both sides are going to want to have that done before Christmas.

‘The last stumbling blocks’

The European Union’s lead negotiator Michel Barnier said today that good progress had been made in talks, but the “last stumbling blocks remain”. 

Barnier has been holding talks with the UK team led by David Frost in an effort to reach a late deal before the current arrangements expire at the end of the year.

He briefed European Parliament leaders this morning about the state of the talks, which he said were in the “final stretch”.

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The talks were given the green light to continue on Sunday following a meeting between Johnson and von der Leyen.

But time is running short for a deal to be reached by negotiators, backed by national leaders and then approved by MPs and MEPs.

Meanwhile, in the UK…

MPs have been put on standby to be recalled if a trade deal is secured as they prepare to finish up for Christmas. 

UK minister for the cabinet office Michael Gove told MPs: “Intensive talks are ongoing with both negotiating teams working day and night to reach a deal.

“We’re going the extra mile in continuing the negotiations to see whether or not an agreement can be reached and we will continue to keep Parliament informed on our progress.”

He added: “Even if sometimes results are coming later than we might have wanted, I know we will be doing everything in order to secure a good free trade agreement in the interests of the whole United Kingdom.”

Gove said if there is a deal “we will request that the House returns in order to make sure that we can legislate effectively, and we believe we can pass the necessary legislation before 31 December to give businesses legal certainty for the future”.

- With reporting from PA

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Adam Daly

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