BRUSSELS — With both sides digging in their heels as another deadline passed Thursday, the European Union and Britain demanded concessions from one another in talks on a basic trade deal that would soften the economic blow of the coronavirus pandemic for all.
The EU leaders meeting in a summit on the day British Prime Minister Boris Johnson had set as a potential cutoff point for the acrimonious negotiations said in a joint statement it was now up to “the UK to make the necessary moves to make an agreement possible.”
London immediately took this as belligerent bluster and UK chief negotiator David Frost said he was surprised by the “suggestion that to get an agreement all future moves must come (the) UK. It’s an unusual approach to conducting a negotiation.”
With negotiating teams ready to continue to seek a deal which could still come into effect when a Brexit divorce transition period ends on Jan. 1, all eyes turned to London where Johnson was bound to announce his next move on Friday.
European Union chief negotiator Michel Barnier said “the negotiations aren’t over,” adding that “we shall remain available until the last possible day.” Barnier added that his team would be London-bound for more talks next week and planned to host negotiations in Brussels the week after that.
He also insisted that EU negotiators “are prepared to speed up negotiations,” countering Frost who said in a Tweet: “Surprised EU is no longer committed to working ‘intensively’ to reach a future partnership.”
Barnier said he saw talks continuing for “two or three weeks.”
Johnson had set the first day of the EU summit on Thursday as the deadline to get a trade and security deal to replace Britain’s EU membership that expired on Jan. 31.
Instead of unfettered trade as a member, a no-deal would leave both sides facing tariffs, custom duties and major regulatory burdens at a time when the pandemic has already created the worst economic crisis in decades.
“With COVID-19 having such a devastating impact on society and on the economies in the United Kingdom and across Europe, obviously I think leaders will not want to hit citizens with a shock in terms of what a no-deal would represent, a significant additional shock to our respective societies and economies,” Irish Prime Minister Micheal Martin said.
Knowing the chances of a deal are slimmer by the day, the EU leaders also urged all in the bloc to “step up their work on preparedness and readiness at all levels and for all outcomes, including that of no agreement.”
“It is for the U.K. now to commit itself and there are far too many areas where things don’t progress as they should,” said Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte.
Beyond the call for speed, the leaders flaunted their unity at the summit, something Britain has failed to dent during years of talks on the withdrawal conditions and now on a bare trade deal with the new non-member.
Ahead of Britain’s angry retort to the summit conclusions, few doubted that Johnson will lean toward continuing the talks for a few more weeks. The negotiations remain in a deep rut over differences on the issues of state aid, common standards of regulation and fishing rights.
All acknowledge that little progress was made recently on the key issues.
Overall, the EU says Britain is trying to retain the advantages of EU membership without the commitment to play by the bloc’s rules. Britain says it is baffled it can’t get a quick deal with generous free trade concessions like Canada got a few years ago.
But EU nations like France want the access of U.K. companies to the EU market to be very strict because of the nation’s sheer proximity and the similarity in goods and service that are traded. They want to make sure British firms won’t be able to undercut their continental rivals with weaker environmental and social regulation and excessive state subsidies.
France is viewed, especially by Britain, as one of the nations most unwilling to compromise, especially on the issue of French boats’ access to British fishing waters.
“Under any circumstance, our fishermen should not be sacrificed for Brexit,” French President Emmanuel Macron said. The fisheries issue was supposed to be settled in July to give the industry time to adapt, but that was another deadline which fell by the wayside.
Since last month, the member states have also become ardent in demanding legal guarantees on governance of any deal after Johnson introduced legislation in September that breaches the Brexit withdrawal agreement he himself signed with the EU only last year.
It left trust in the Johnson government shattered, and the European Parliament, which must approve any deal, has vowed not to approve any trade deal if the U.K. government doesn’t withdraw this legislation. Britain says it will keep the legislation, with the option to use it if necessary.
Jill Lawless contributed to this report from London.
Raf Casert, The Associated Press