Brexit negotiations stall as both sides remain ‘far apart’

Boris Johnson and Ursula von der Leyen in Brussels last night
in Brussels

Boris Johnson has failed to secure Brexit concessions from the EU after face-to-face talks in Brussels aimed at breaking the deadlock and avoiding a no deal ended without agreement.

The prime minister flew home from the Belgian capital with little to show last night, despite hopes he could prepare the ground for a political compromise ahead of an EU leaders’ summit today.

Negotiating teams will return to the coalface over the next few days, while Downing Street said that it was “still unclear” whether “very large gaps” between the two sides could be bridged.

As the 27 EU leaders prepared to head to the Belgian capital today, EU officials ruled out any discussion of Brexit at the top-level meeting, briefing that leaders did not want to be “dragged into a debate”.

It comes as Angela Merkel made a rare Brexit intervention warning that she could not accept Mr Johnson’s proposals, and Leo Varadkar, the Irish deputy prime minister, said he thought that Mr Johnson was ready to fold.

Over a dinner of turbot and scollops in the commission’s Berlaymont building, Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commision president, and Mr Johnson agreed that by Sunday “a firm decision” should be taken about whether to pull the plug on talks.

 It comes amid pressure from some member states for the European Commission to put in motion its contingency planning for a damaging no-deal exit from the single market.

In a statement following the dinner, Ms Von der Leyen said the discussion was “lively and interesting” and that positions “remain far apart”.

“We agreed that the teams should immediately reconvene to try and resolve these essential issues. We will come to a decision by the end of the weekend,” she said. 

A senior No 10 source said: “The prime minister and Ms Von der Leyen had a frank discussion about the significant obstacles which remain in the negotiations.

“Very large gaps remain between the two sides and it is still unclear whether these can be bridged. The PM and Ms Von der Leyen agreed to further discussions over the next few days between their negotiating teams.

“The PM does not want to leave any route to a possible deal untested. They agreed that by Sunday a firm decision should be taken about the future of the talks.”

Negotiations are still deadlocked on the perennial issues of fishing rights for EU fleets, the extent to which the UK will keep up with EU standards after it leaves the single market, and how the deal could to be enforced.

Addressing the issue of standards, or the so-called “level playing field”, Ms Merkel told German MPs yesterday that Brussels should not weaken its stance on the issue.

“We must have a level playing field not just for today, but we must have one for tomorrow or the day after, and to do this we must have agreements on how one can react if the other changes their legal situation,” she told the Bundestag.

“Otherwise there will be unfair competitive conditions that we cannot ask of our companies.”

Adding that there was “still a chance of an agreement”, she said: “One thing is clear: the integrity of the [EU’s] internal market must be preserved. If there are conditions from the British side which we cannot accept, we are prepared to go down a road which is without an exit agreement.”

One EU source familiar with the thinking of Emmanuel Macron’s allies in Brussels said France is among member states increasingly toying with the idea of calling the UK’s bluff on a no deal – despite the possible economic impact.

“The talk has definitely shifted to ‘let’s look again at this next year’,” they said. 

“Better that than be stuck for years and years with a dodgy deal. That could be far more expensive than having to deal with angry fishermen, over 20, 30 years.”

In Dublin, Mr Varadkar said he believed Mr Johnson was open to compromise.

He told Irish public broadcaster RTE that the PM’s natural instincts are closer to the “liberal” London mayor than the more “conservative” Brexiteer.

“Is Boris Johnson willing to make concessions in those areas? I think he probably is,” he said.”If I know him, and I don’t know him that well, but I know him a bit, I think his natural instincts are much closer to the more liberal London mayor that he was than the more conservative Brexiteer.

“I think he wants Britain to be part of the world, and I think he wants Britain to be seen as a country that is a first actor, one with high standards. 

“However, he will be very strong on the sovereignty point and I think any set of common minimum standards, any set of level playing field rules, would have to be one that the UK feels are imposed on them. That will be a circle that is going to be hard to square.” 

Micheal Martin, the Irish prime minister, told the Dail talks were “on the precipice” of a no deal.

In the Commons yesterday Mr Johnson told MPs: “Our friends in the EU are currently insisting that if they pass a new law in the future with which we in this country do not comply or don’t follow suit, then they want the automatic right to punish us and to retaliate.

“Secondly, they are saying that the UK should be the only country in the world not to have sovereign control over its fishing waters. I don’t believe that those are terms that any prime minister of this country should accept.”