Brexit: Ursula von der Leyen says there is 'path to agreement'

16 December 2020, 10:21 | Updated: 16 December 2020, 10:51

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen
European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen. Picture: PA

By Patrick Grafton-Green

The European Commission president says "there is a path to an agreement now” in post-Brexit trade talks, adding the next few days would be "decisive".

Ursula von der Leyen told the European Parliament in Brussels that "as things stand I cannot tell you whether there will be a deal or not".

Although she said there is a "path" to an agreement, she conceded it is "very narrow". "It is therefore our responsibility to continue trying," she added.

The UK and EU's chief negotiators Lord Frost and Michel Barnier are continuing talks in Brussels this week.

READ MORE: Boris Johnson says no-deal Brexit remains 'most likely outcome' as talks continue

Mrs Von der Leyen's comments spark hopes the UK may leave the EU with a deal, the day after Prime Minister Boris Johnson said no free trade agreement still remains the "most likely outcome".

For months talks have been deadlocked on the issues of fishing rights, the "level playing field" to ensure neither side can unfairly compete with the other on environmental standards, workers' rights or state subsidies, and the legal mechanisms to govern any deal.

Mrs Von der Leyen indicated on Tuesday that fishing rights remained a major obstacle, while there are also still difficulties on how to "future proof" fair competition, with the UK strongly resisting attempts to force it to follow EU rules.

But she suggested some progress had been made on the "level playing field".

"On the level playing field, our aim is simply to ensure fair competition on our own market, very simple," Mrs von der Leyen told MEPs.

"And this is why we need to establish robust mechanisms.

“The architecture we're working on rests on two pillars: state aid and standards.

"On state aid, we have made progress based on common principles, guarantees of domestic enforcement and the possibility to autonomously remedy the situation when needed.

"On standards, we have agreed a strong mechanism of non-regression. That's a big step forward."

Ms von der Leyen acknowledged the negotiations on fisheries remain "very difficult" and may prove impossible.

She said: "We do not question the UK's sovereignty on its own waters.

"But we ask for predictability and stability for our fishermen and our fisherwomen.

"And, in all honesty, it sometimes feels that we will not be able to resolve this question.

"But we must continue to try to find a solution and it is the only responsible and right course of action."

With MEPs concerned a deal could be implemented provisionally before they get the chance to vote on it, Mrs von der Leyen added: "The clock puts us all in a very difficult situation, not least this Parliament and its right to exercise democratic scrutiny and ratification."

Negotiations between the two sides were extended on Sunday after Mr Johnson and Mrs von der Leyen agreed to continue the process.

The UK's current trading arrangements with the EU expire at the end of the month, meaning any new deal would have to be in place by January 1.

If not, tariffs and quotas will apply and bureaucracy will increase, causing further damage to an economy already ravaged by coronavirus.