Discussions ended Thursday a day earlier than planned, as a meeting between the teams' chief negotiators initially slated Friday was taken off the agenda. Following four days of negotiations in Brussels, the European Union's chief negotiator Michel Barnier said “serious divergences remain." Despite the roadblocks, he said an agreement remains possible before the year-end deadline.
Britain's chief negotiator, David Frost, said the talks had been “comprehensive and useful” but had “underlined the significant differences that still remain between us on a number of important issues.”
Both sides agreed that discussions will resume next week in London. Because of the coronavirus crisis, the teams had been forced to switch to discussions via video-conference that did not lead to significant progress.
The U.K. left the political institutions of the EU on Jan. 31 but remains inside the EU’s tariff-free economic zone until the end of the year. The parties are trying to secure a new trade deal before that deadline but remain at loggerheads on several key issues. They disagree on regulations for businesses and for the fishing industry, with the U.K. adamantly opposed to EU demands for long-term access to British waters.
Noting some progress in areas including police cooperation, Barnier said last month that an agreement on fisheries was required for a compromise. “There will be no economic partnership without robust guarantees for a level playing field – including on state aid – to ensure open and fair competition among our businesses; a balanced, sustainable and long-term solution for our European fishermen and women; an overarching institutional framework and effective dispute settlement mechanisms,” Barnier said in a statement.
He previously said the “moment of truth” in talks would come in October when both sides will need to have a compromise ready for an accord to be ratified in time and avoid a no-deal scenario which would see tariffs and other restrictions imposed on trade between the U.K. and the 27-nation bloc.
Britain has said that a deal needs to be reached even sooner and there must be major progress before autumn. “We remain committed to working hard to find an early understanding on the principles underlying an agreement out of the intensified talks process during July," Frost said in a statement.
Speaking at a joint news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said the EU wants a trade agreement with the U.K., “but not a any price." “Fair competition conditions” for European industry and companies are important, von der Leyen said, as is protecting “the integrity of our common market.”
“The agreement must achieve this, and as of today we are still a long way apart. We are a long way away from a common denominator with our British friends,” she said. “We must work at high pressure but we must, parallel to the negotiations, prepare for every other outcome.”
Germany took over the EU's rotating presidency on Wednesday for a 6-month term. __ Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed to this report. Lawless reported from London.
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