Von der Leyen says parts of Brexit talks 'completely open' ahead of showdown

Daniel Boffey and Jennifer Rankin in Brussels and Patrick Wintour in London
·6-min read
<span>Photograph: Henry Nicholls/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Henry Nicholls/Reuters

Ursula von der Leyen has described the most difficult parts of the Brexit negotiation as remaining “completely open” but backed an intensification of talks ahead of a crunch video-conference call with Boris Johnson.

After the latest and last scheduled round of negotiations in Brussels on a trade and security deal, the European commission president said there remained “a lot of work to do”, with 100 days left before the UK exits the single market and customs union.

But the former German defence minister told journalists at the end of an EU summit: “Where there is a will there is a way”.

Her comments came as a spokesman for the prime minister said Johnson would speak to the commission president on Saturday afternoon to “take stock of negotiations and discuss next steps”.

After their last meeting in June, Johnson had declared it time to put a “tiger in the tank” of the negotiations. The prime minister had insisted it was even possible to strike a deal before the summer was out. Three months have since passed.

Von der Leyen said the two sides were still stuck on the issues of access to British waters for European fleets and the so-called level playing field provisions being pushed by Brussels to ensure neither economies can undercut standards or unfairly subsidise businesses through state aid.

In a sign of the significant differences that remain, she side-stepped the question of whether the talks could go into a so-called “tunnel” negotiation, where the two sides work on creative solutions outside the scrutiny of the media and domestic politics, but pointed to the economic ravage caused by the coronavirus pandemic as reason to find agreement.

Von der Leyen and the Irish taosieach, Micheál Martin, briefed the heads of state and government on the latest developments during the summit of leaders where discussions were otherwise focused on foreign affairs.

Speaking later, the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, said she was unable to report on a “breakthrough” between the UK’s chief negotiator, David Frost, and his EU counterpart, Michel Barnier, but remained optimistic as long as the talks continued.

Merkel described the UK’s internal market bill, which would unilaterally overturn parts of the Brexit withdrawal treaty, as “a very bitter moment”. In London, Mick Mulvaney, US special envoy for Northern Ireland, said he was sending the same message to Downing Street as the US Democrats in warning that a US-UK free trade deal could be blocked if the Northern Ireland Good Friday agreement was undermined by Brexit.

But Merkel decoupled the row over the withdrawal agreement from the trade and security talks with the UK. In comments that will be welcomed in Downing Street, she said that an agreement on fisheries signed this week between the UK and Norway was “at least an indicator for being on a constructive path”.

British officials argue that Norway, a non EU member state that conducts annual negotiations with the bloc on fishing quotas, should be the model for a post-Brexit deal on shared stocks.

Merkel also said she recognised that the UK wanted to be independent of EU standards and state aid rules and that other means would be required to ensure a level playing field. “And that’s something that we need to respect that we’re going to respect and we have to find appropriate answers to this”, she said.

The internal market bill aims to enforce compatible rules and regulations regarding trade in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Some rules, for example around food safety or air quality,  which were formerly set by EU agreements, will now be controlled by the devolved administrations or Westminster. The internal market bill insists that devolved administrations  have to accept goods and services from all the nations of the UK – even if their standards differ locally.

This, says the government, is in part to ensure international traders have access to the UK as a whole, confident that standards and rules are consistent.

The Scottish government has criticised it as a Westminster "power grab", and the Welsh government has expressed fears it will lead to a race to the bottom. If one of the countries that makes up the UK lowers their standards, over the importation of chlorinated chicken, for example, the other three nations will have to accept chlorinated chicken too.

It has become even more controversial because one of its main aims is to empower ministers to pass regulations even if they are contrary to the withdrawal agreement reached with the EU under the Northern Ireland protocol.

The text does not disguise its intention, stating that powers contained in the bill “have effect notwithstanding any relevant international or domestic law with which they may be incompatible or inconsistent".

The bill passed its first hurdle in parliament by 77 votes, despite a rebellion by some Tory MPs.

Martin Belam and Owen Bowcott

The Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte, said a deal with the UK was a “geopolitical necessity”. “I’m not more nor less optimistic that I was before this European council [summit]”, he said. “I’ve always been cautiously optimistic.”

The two sides will continue in talks over the next two weeks with an EU summit on 15 October looming as a key moment.

Johnson had suggested last month the UK could walk away from the talks to concentrate on no-deal preparations should there be no agreement by mid-October. Brussels had also hoped to have a deal in place by the time of the summit.

The first or second week of November is now being seen as the real deadline for agreement given the need to find time time for ratification by the European parliament and in Westminster. Barnier is due to meet Merkel on Monday in Berlin.

Ahead of this week’s talks, five new draft negotiating documents were submitted by the government, including legal texts on fisheries, the “level playing field”, law enforcement and judicial cooperation, civil nuclear cooperation and social security coordination.

The Guardian revealed on Wednesday that Britain had offered a three-year transition period for European fishing fleets to allow them to prepare for the post-Brexit changes as part of an 11th-hour deal sweetener. The catches of EU fishermen would be “phased down” between 2021 and 2024 to offer time for European coastal communities to adapt to the changes but the French government is refusing to countenance the major changes to catches being proposed by London.

On state aid, EU sources said the UK had offered to lay out a series of “principles” on controlling domestic subsidies. But the paper failed to offer appropriate “governance” proposals that would allow Brussels to keep the UK to its pledges, EU sources said.