Brussels on Friday called for an intensification of trade talks with the UK as Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel said that the negotiations were entering a “decisive phase”.
European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said she would speak with UK prime minister Boris Johnson on Saturday and urge a redoubling of efforts to get a deal over the line, with the issue of state aid and other “level playing field” standards for business constituting the biggest sticking points in the talks.
Speaking to reporters after a summit of EU leaders in Brussels, she said that this week’s formal negotiating round — the final one scheduled — had left “a lot of work to do”.
“Overall, where there is a will there is a way, so I think we should intensify the negotiations because it is worth working hard on it,” she added.
EU officials said Brussels had received mixed messages from the UK during this week’s talks, which concluded on Friday with a meeting between EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier and his UK counterpart David Frost. While some progress was made in areas such as EU access to British fishing waters, there was a continued lack of momentum on the critical issue of state aid.
A spokesperson for Mr Johnson said on Friday that this week’s talks had been “constructive and wide-ranging”.
London had hoped that talks would rapidly move into the so-called tunnel, or submarine phase, under which the most senior negotiators would work in a small group to thrash out difficult issues with minimal outside scrutiny.
“I don’t like the term ‘tunnel’ to be honest because it is a word association,” Ms von der Leyen said. “Intensify [means] we are running out of time. It is, I think, around 100 days until the end of the year. So It is worth [it] to step up now.”
It will now fall to Mr Johnson and Ms von der Leyen to chart a course. Mr Barnier will hold talks with Ms Merkel on Monday, in a further sign of the EU gearing up for the negotiating end game.
Ms Merkel said on Friday that it “will emerge in the next few days if we can make progress or not”.
She added: “As long as we’re continuing to negotiate, I’m confident. But I have no breakthrough to report.”
The EU believes that a deal is still possible despite the uneven progress and the two sides’ dispute over UK government plans to override the Brexit treaty that Mr Johnson agreed with EU leaders last year.
Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte said after Friday’s EU summit that he was “cautiously optimistic”. “In an unstable world we need to stick together and therefore there is this clear rationale [for a deal],” he said.
Mr Barnier has said the realistic deadline for any trade deal is October 31, given the need for the EU parliament to review it before ratification. Britain’s post-Brexit transition period expires at the end of this year, meaning any deal needs to by then mitigate the effects of the UK exiting the EU single market and customs union.
Ms von der Leyen is likely to press Mr Johnson particularly in the area of state aid and other level playing field issues.
The EU is insisting that it will agree a trade deal with the UK only if the agreement enshrines clear, enforceable, guarantees that European companies cannot be undercut by unfair UK competition.
State aid has become a particular sticking point, with Brussels keen to see Britain apply similar restrictions on subsidies to the EU. The EU is also pushing — with strong encouragement from France — to insert “ratchet clauses” into the agreement that would prevent a future unwinding of environmental regulations and labour standards in the UK.
“We have to work on a mechanism where, over time, when things change there is an alignment,” Ms von der Leyen said, adding that dispute-settlement arrangements would need to be established to deal with “problems and difficulties”.
In a sign of the efforts under way to find common ground, Ms Merkel said that it was clear that “Britain wants more freedoms than just continuing to follow the rules of the single market”.
She added: “And we have to respect that. We have to find the appropriate response.”
Additional reporting by Mehreen Khan in Brussels, Guy Chazan in Berlin and Jasmine Cameron-Chileshe in London