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Boris Johnson and EC chief seek to break Brexit deal deadlock amid 'significant divergences'

Suban Abdulla
·3-min read
Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson greets European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen outside 10 Downing Street in central London on January 8, 2020, ahead of their meeting. - The EU's top official on Wednesday predicted "tough talks" with Britain on the sides' future relations after Brexit enters force after years of delays at the end of the month. "There will be tough talks ahead and each side will do what is best for them," European Council president Ursula von der Leyen said ahead of her first official meeting with Prime Minister Boris Johnson. (Photo by Daniel LEAL-OLIVAS / AFP) (Photo by DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP via Getty Images)
Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson greets European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen outside 10 Downing Street in central London on January 8, 2020. Photo: Daniel Leal-Olivas / AFP via Getty Images

UK prime minister Boris Johnson and European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen are to hold emergency talks as negotiations over a post-Brexit trade agreement go down the wire.

It comes after UK’s chief negotiator David Frost and his EU counterpart Michel Barnier announced on Friday they were putting discussions on "pause" to allow political leaders to take stock.

The pair said in a joint statement, following talks in London, that the conditions for a deal had still not been met, adding that "significant divergences" remained following a week of intensive talks.

"If there is still a way, we will see," Barnier said.

But the clock is ticking on to get a deal through the door before the UK leaves EU trading rules on 31 December.

While both sides have agreed on most things, they have failed to solve their differences on key sticking points such as fishing rights, the rules governing state subsidies for business and how the agreement is policed.

Johnson and Von der Leyen are due to discuss the “state of play” on Saturday afternoon, Lord Frost and Barnier said in a joint statement.

“After one week of intense negotiations in London, the two chief negotiators agreed today that the conditions for an agreement are not met, due to significant divergences on level playing field, governance and fisheries.”

The two sides have been deadlocked on several issues such as fishing rights and a level playing field, which have held up negotiations for months.

Last week, Britain’s foreign secretary has urged the European Union to accept a "point of principle" on fisheries — a key sticking point in reaching an agreement. The foreign secretary was positive and said that the country was in a “reasonable position” and there's a “deal to be done,” adding negotiations might soon be “reaching a conclusion.”

But, the progress has been spoilt by reports that France has threatened to veto any agreement if it involves too many concessions from the EU’s side. An unnamed UK government source told the Times the French were “agitating around EU capitals.”

READ MORE: Brexit: Betting odds put UK-EU trade deal by end of 2020 at 85%

A peer-to-peer betting exchange Smarkets betting odds put a Brexit trade agreement between Britain and the European Union by the end of this year at 85%. The odds of the transition period being extended beyond January 2021 stayed low at 14%, as the time for negotiations ticks on.

On Thursday, a senior Downing Street source told the media that the chance of an agreement was “receding.”

The source blamed the EU for making “eleventh hour” demands around how to enforce so-called level playing field rules when the Brexit transition period ends on 1 January 2021.

“At the eleventh hour, the EU is bringing new elements into the negotiation,” the unnamed source told journalists, according to the Press Association, BBC and the Times.

“A breakthrough is still possible in the next few days, but that prospect is receding.”

Meanwhile, business secretary Alok Sharma said talks continued but were in a “difficult phase.”

“We are committed to reaching an agreement with the EU on this particular discussion that we are having,” Sharma told BBC Breakfast on Friday.

“But, of course, time is short and we are in a difficult phase. There’s no denying that. There are a number of tricky issues that still have to be resolved.”

Watch: What is a no-deal Brexit and what are the potential consequences?