The European Union’s Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, has said sealing a new trade pact with Britain is still possible and that negotiations are continuing to attempt to solve rifts over access to UK fishing waters and rules of economic fair play for companies.
“We’ve only been negotiating for nine months. We’ve needed at least five years for all the previous agreements. We are going to give every chance to this agreement … which is still possible,” Mr Barnier told journalists, on arriving to update envoys from the 27 EU countries in Brussels on the UK talks.
“A good, balanced agreement – that means two conditions which aren’t met yet. Free and fair competition… and an agreement which guarantees reciprocal access to markets and waters. And it’s on these points that we haven’t found the right balance with the British. So we keep working.”
Mr Barnier will brief member states and the European Parliament this morning following the decision yesterday by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to keep the talks alive.
He will meet his opposite number David Frost later today as both sides try to conclude a future relationship agreement in the coming days.
Taoiseach Micheál Martin said he was hopeful the British and EU negotiators can strike a post-Brexit trade deal in the coming days but that significant challenges still remained on the key sticking points.
Speaking on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland, he said: “I’m hopeful but I don’t want to understate the very significant challenges that face both the UK side and the European Union side on this level playing field issues and the fishery issue. They are significantly difficult issues.
“The real end deadline is New Year’s Eve but I think both sides are very possessed of the need to get outcomes to these negotiations in the next number of days,” he added
Mr Martin said both sets of negotiators are conscious of the enormity of the breakdown of talks and will try to tie down the outstanding issues, particularly the level playing field and fishing industry issues.
He said that it would be a terrible pity to lose all that has been agreed already and that there is a “need to stand back from high principles” as, he added, the issue of standards could be agreed to prevent undue advantages in the future.
He said Mr Barnier wants “a genuine constructive trading partnership” between the EU and the UK going forward.
The phone call between Mr Johnson and Ms von der Leyen yesterday was described as positive and followed intense negotiation over the weekend on the question of fair competition between both sides, known as the level playing field.
Both sides are said to be working on a formula that would allow the EU to retaliate if the UK, over time, diverges from EU standards in a way that would give British firms a competitive edge as they continue to trade into the single market.
It has been reported negotiators have been working on a mechanism that would allow for a period of consultation on any trade distortion that might come about before the EU would be entitled to impose tariffs, or take other action.
If a mechanism can be found, then both teams will still have to address the question of fisheries. As such, the talks this week could go on for several days.
Mr Barnier will brief EU ambassadors on the prospects for a breakthrough, but he will also have to talk to MEPs, who will be growing increasingly alarmed that they may have to ratify a treaty they have barely been able to analyse.
Britain’s business minister said the sides are still apart “on certain matters” but Mr Johnson does not want to walk away yet.
Speaking on Sky News, Alok Sharma said: “We will continue discussing, we are of course apart on certain matters but as the prime minister said, we don’t want to walk away from these talks.
“People expect us, businesses expect us in the UK to go the extra mile and that’s precisely what we’re doing.”
He added: “Any deal that we get with the EU has to respect the fact that we are a sovereign country, an independent country and that’s the basis on which we will do a deal if there is a deal to be done.”
The Business Secretary also urged people not to engage in bulk buying ahead of a possible failure to reach a trade deal.
With supermarkets stockpiling ahead of 1 January, he said: “I’m very confident that actually the supply chains will still be in place.
“I would say to everyone just do your normal shopping as you would do and I think we will find we are going to be absolutely fine.”
Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald has said while securing a Brexit deal remains a challenge, it is doable and that a deal is “absolutely possible”.
Speaking on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland, Ms McDonald said last night’s soundings appeared “more thoughtful, considered and calm” and that a deal at this stage will be a political decision rather than on the basis of technical matters.
She said it is a crunch point and the stakes are very high, so both sides will push out their advantage.
Ms McDonald said that the EU negotiators need to “hold their nerve and not lose focus” and ensure a deal is equitable and delivers on the EU’s key interests.
Additional reporting Reuters, PA