No-deal Brexit hangs in the balance at EU summit as Boris Johnson threatens walk out

Jon Stone
·4-min read
European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen spoke with Boris Johnson on the eve of the meeting (AFP/Getty)
European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen spoke with Boris Johnson on the eve of the meeting (AFP/Getty)

A no-deal Brexit hangs in the balance as Boris Johnson says the outcome of this today's EU summit will dictate whether Britain will walk out of talks.

EU leaders will on Thursday meet for their first Brexit summit since the start of the pandemic – a date which the prime minister has long said was his final cut-off.

But despite no agreement being in sight, the prime minister is considering whether to prolong the exercise, potentially until the first week of November, to give the teams more time.

Mr Johnson is expected to be told by his chief negotiator David Frost that a deal is still possible, despite a lack of concrete progress on key issues so far – with fishing right a major sticking point.

The prime minister spoke to the presidents of the European Commission and European Council president on Wednesday night, where he "expressed his disappointment" that intensified discussions had led to little progress.

Council president Charles Michel said he and Ms Von der Leyen had "pressed again for progress to be made at the negotiation table", while a leaked draft of tomorrow's conclusions suggests leaders are unlikely to give ground.

Downing Street said the prime minister would wait for the summit to conclude before he decided whether to pull out, with a decision expected after leads head home.

This phase of Brexit talks, to strike a trade deal to go with the divorce deal struck last year, has been overshadowed on both sides of the Channel by the Covid-19 pandemic – with a resulting lack of political urgency and attention so far.

“The prime minister noted the desirability of a deal, but expressed his disappointment that more progress had not been made over the past two weeks," a Downing Street spokesperson said of the discussion, which was held by video conference.

“The prime minister said that he looked forward to hearing the outcome of the European Council and would reflect before setting out the UK’s next steps in the light of his statement of 7 September.”

Ms von der Leyen said there was "still a lot of work ahead", adding: "The EU is working on a deal, but not at any price. Conditions must be right, on fisheries, level-playing field and governance."

Failure to have a deal in place by 31 December is expected to ramp up the economic damage caused by Brexit.

On Wednesday transport secretary Grant Shapps admitted EU-UK flights could be grounded if no workaround could be found, while the government has finally begun to prepare for chaos at ports in Kent.

UK moves to row back on commitments it made over Northern Ireland, in breach of international law, have not helped matters, with diplomats in Brussels warning that serious legal safeguards to prevent a repeat on any new deal are now required.

While the question of fisheries looks as intractable as ever, chinks of light have appeared on the issue of the so-called “level playing field” – the extent to which the UK will abide by EU rules that has also dogged previous rounds.

Both sides have made minor concession that could unblock the way – with the UK giving some indication of how its domestic regime might work, and the EU edging away from an insistence on the European Court of Justice having a role. But diplomats warn that it could be for nothing if other issues sink the talks.

The prime minister said in September that he saw little point talking through autumn, and that if there was a deal to be done it would emerge by this week’s summit.

A draft version of the summit conclusions on Brexit circulated by Brussels backchannels ahead of the meeting says that "progress on the key issues of interest to the union is still not sufficient for an agreement to be reached".

EU leaders will not only consider Brexit at the meeting: Covid, climate change and the bloc's budget will also be discussed, with the union's foreign policy agenda also requiring attention.

A UK government spokesperson said: “There are still differences, with fisheries being the starkest. We need to get substance settled and not having a common text to work from has made progress doubly difficult.

“The PM’s 7 September statement was very clear about the significance of 15 October. He will need to take a decision on next steps following the European Council in the light of his conversation with President von der Leyen, and on advice from his negotiating team. We cannot prejudge that decision.”

Britain left the EU in January but remains in the single market and customs union until the end of this year.

This second “economic” Brexit is expected to be more noticeable than the first “political” Brexit – with disruption to trade flows expected whether a deal is reached or not.

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