Brexit: EU offer ‘unacceptable' as deadline approaches in trade talks

12 December 2020, 21:08 | Updated: 13 December 2020, 10:23

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen (R) talks with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen (R) talks with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Picture: PA

By Megan White

The terms offered by the European Union on a trade deal continue to be "unacceptable" to the UK, according to a Government source - with time running out to strike an agreement.

Talks between chief negotiators Lord Frost and Michel Barnier are expected to last late into tonight in Brussels, but officials have stressed there had been no breakthrough in the latest discussions that started just before midday on Saturday.

The Prime Minister will again speak with the European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen on Sunday, following a dinner meeting in Brussels during the week in which both agreed a firm decision on the future of negotiations was needed by the end of the weekend.

The UK and European Union are continuing last-ditch efforts to find a breakthrough on a deal before the weekend deadline with chance of a No Deal scenario "at 80 per cent" according to the Daily Mail.

The No Deal scenario is predicted to cost jobs and force food prices to increase. Supermarkets have begun stockpiling food after being warned by ministers that no deal is likely.

A supermarket industry source told the Sunday Times: "There was a conversation a week ago when ministers said prepare for No Deal. This weekend the message is that it's No Deal.

"Supermarkets and ministers are hugely worried about panic-buying. They saw what happened over Covid when people started hoarding toilet rolls and know how quickly it can go wrong.

"That will be nothing compared to what will happen. Meat supplies will be fine and fruit comes from South America but there are likely to be shortages of vegetables for three months."

The British Retail Consortium has warned that supermarkets and their shoppers would be hit with a £3.1 billion annual "tariff bombshell" without a deal, with 85% of foods imported from the EU expected to face tariffs exceeding 5%.

Trade talks continue to be deadlocked over the thorny issues of fishing rights and the so-called level playing field "ratchet" that would tie the UK to future EU standards.

Read more: Navy threat to EU fishing ships branded ‘irresponsible’ by Tory MP

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A Government source said: "Talks are continuing overnight, but as things stand the offer on the table from the EU remains unacceptable.

"The Prime Minister will leave no stone unturned in this process, but he is absolutely clear: any agreement must be fair and respect the fundamental position that the UK will be a sovereign nation in three weeks' time."

Mr Johnson and Europe's top official Ms von der Leyen have both warned that a no-deal outcome looks more likely than an agreement in the trade negotiations.

With the UK teetering on the brink of a no-deal exit, the Government has stepped up preparations for crashing out of the single market when transition arrangements end on December 31.

The confirmation from the Ministry of Defence that four Royal Navy gunboats have been placed on standby to guard British waters from EU trawlers if there is no agreement has been greeted with anger by some senior Tories.

Reports have also suggested that ministers are considering beefing-up Navy powers in legislation to authorise them to board and arrest fishermen found to be contravening post-Brexit rules.

Tobias Ellwood, Conservative chairman of the Commons Defence Committee, called the threat "irresponsible" while former European commissioner Lord Patten said the Prime Minister's no-deal rhetoric was based on the "runaway train of English exceptionalism".

But Admiral Lord West, a former chief of naval staff, said it was "absolutely appropriate" for the Royal Navy to protect UK waters from foreign fishing vessels if asked to do so in a no-deal Brexit scenario.

"The Royal Navy should protect our waters if the position is that we are a sovereign state and our Government has said we don't want other nations there," Lord West said.

When asked about the UK's decision to ready Royal Navy patrol ships, an Elysee Palace official in Paris reportedly replied using the British wartime slogan, telling journalists: "Keep calm and carry on.

The trade talks continue to be deadlocked over the thorny issues of fishing rights and the so-called level playing field "ratchet" that would tie the UK to future EU standards.

Mr Johnson, in a speech at a climate change summit on Saturday, appeared to take a dig at French president Emmanuel Macron over the fishing row.

Mr Macron is said to have threatened to veto a UK-EU deal after expressing dissatisfaction at the new quota terms being thrashed out for French fishermen.

In his closing remarks, the Prime Minister thanked summit co-host Mr Macron, adding that he knew the En Marche! leader "shares my keen interest in protecting the ecosystems of our seas".