EU leaders meet as 'gloomy' Brexit talks hang in the balance

10 December 2020, 15:06

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

EU leaders are meeting in Brussels on Thursday as Ministers in London admitted the UK's post-Brexit trade talks look "gloomy."

The summit is taking place the day after Prime Minister Boris Johnson visited the Belgian capital for dinner with European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen in a last-ditch attempt to reach an agreement.

The pair agreed that a decision on the future of the negotiations will be taken by the end of the weekend.

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Penny Mordaunt, a minister in the Cabinet Office, told the House of Commons the UK will continue negotiating until there is "no hope" of a deal, but said "things do appear gloomy" and "time is running out."

Mrs von der Leyen said on Thursday that the conversation had been "good but it is difficult" but added "the conditions have to be fair."

The UK has not ruled out the prospect of talks continuing beyond Sunday, but ministers stressed the need for "finality" in the process.

Earlier on Thursday, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab told LBC the UK is "not going to give up on the basic points of democratic principle" in negotiating a Brexit deal.

He told Nick Ferrari it was "not clear if large gaps can be bridged" as the UK struggles to secure a deal with the EU, but said the Government "need to see a final decision by Sunday on future of negotiations."

Mr Raab said he would do "whatever it takes" to help secure a deal, even if it meant interrupting his Christmas celebrations.

At a summit of EU leaders on Thursday, Mrs von der Leyen said: "I had a very long conversation yesterday night with Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

"It was a good conversation but it is difficult. We are willing to grant access to the single market to our British friends - it is the largest single market in the world.

"But the conditions have to be fair. They have to be fair for our workers and for our companies, and this fine balance of fairness has not been achieved so far."

The EU's leaders were being updated by Mrs von der Leyen on the progress - or lack of it - during the summit in Brussels.

The fact that negotiators Lord Frost and Michel Barnier were meeting again on Thursday at least gave some cause for hope.

Number 10 said the Prime Minister arrived back to Downing Street in the "early hours" of Thursday morning following his dinner meeting in Brussels.

Boris Johnson's official spokesman said there was "nothing agreed yet" on whether he would travel again over the weekend to meet with European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen or vice-versa.

Asked about Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab's comments that the talks could go on past Sunday if there are only fine details to sort out, the spokesman reiterated that Mr Johnson and Ms von der Leyen had committed to reaching a "firm decision" by the end of the weekend.

Earlier, the EU set out proposals for contingency agreements if a trade deal is not in place when the current arrangements expire at the end of the month, including on air routes, aviation safety and road transport.

One of the four measures proposed by Mrs von der Leyen is for EU fishing boats to continue to enjoy access to UK waters during 2021, an area which has been one of the main sticking points in the trade negotiations.

In response to the EU's proposals, Downing Street again stressed the importance of taking back control of the UK's waters.

The Prime Minister's official spokesman said: "We would never accept arrangements and access to UK fishing waters which are incompatible with our status as an independent coastal state."

But the spokesman said the UK will "look closely" at the mini-deals proposed by the EU if there is no overall agreement.

Just three weeks remain until the current transitional arrangements expire.

Failure to reach agreement would see tariffs imposed on UK exports to the EU, the country's biggest trading partner, and could also increase bureaucracy.

The Office for Budget Responsibility has suggested that a no-deal outcome could wipe 2% off gross domestic product, a measure of the size of the economy, in 2021.