UK says post-Brexit trade talks can continue for ‘as long as we have time’

The UK is prepared to continue post-Brexit trade deal negotiations for “as long as we have time available”, Number 10 has said, as talks aimed at breaking the deadlock continue.

Boris Johnson’s official spokesman said that although time was in “very short supply”, Britain would stick at the discussions if an agreement was still possible.

But the comments appeared to be at odds with the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier, who reportedly told MEPs the deadline for talks succeeding is Wednesday.

The Prime Minister’s spokesman told a Westminster briefing: “Time is obviously in very short supply and we’re in the final stages, but we’re prepared to negotiate for as long as we have time available if we think an agreement is still possible.”

He said “significant differences” remain – including on fishing rights – which will be discussed in talks on Monday, but ruled out negotiations continuing after this year.

Mr Barnier and his UK counterpart Lord Frost are negotiating in Brussels in a bid to break the stalemate – with just over three weeks until the end of the transition period.

At 4pm on Monday, Mr Johnson and European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen will assess whether a deal can be salvaged – their second call in a little over 48 hours.

Meanwhile, Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove met his counterpart on the UK-EU joint committee in Brussels, though the discussions are separate from the trade negotiations.

Michel Barnier
The EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

But in an olive branch to Brussels, the Government said it was prepared to remove three controversial clauses from the UK Internal Market Bill relating to the Irish border.

In a statement, the Government said the UK and EU have “worked constructively together through the Withdrawal Agreement Joint Committee.

“Discussions continue to progress and final decisions are expected in the coming days. If the solutions being considered in those discussions are agreed, the UK Government would be prepared to remove clause 44 of the UK Internal Market Bill, concerning export declarations.

“The UK Government would also be prepared to deactivate clauses 45 and 47, concerning state aid, such that they could be used only when consistent with the United Kingdom’s rights and obligations under international law.”

It comes after Mr Barnier was said to have given a “downbeat” and “gloomy” assessment of progress in reaching a post-Brexit trade deal in an update to ambassadors from the 27 member states earlier on Monday.

Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney told RTE news: “Having heard from Michel Barnier this morning, really the news is very downbeat. I would say he is very gloomy, and obviously very cautious about the ability to make progress today.

“There was news last night on some media sources that there was a breakthrough on fishing. That is absolutely not the case from what we’re hearing this morning.”

Amid the febrile mood surrounding the negotiations, British sources denied reports on Sunday that there had been a breakthrough on the thorny issue of future fishing rights.

Reports suggested they had agreed to a transition period for phasing in changes for access for EU boats to UK waters of between five and seven years.

However, a UK Government source said: “There’s been no breakthrough on fish. Nothing new has been achieved on this today.”

Amid the uncertainty, the pound was down 1.3% against the dollar.

Following their earlier call on Saturday, Mr Johnson and Mrs von der Leyen acknowledged that there are still “serious differences” to be resolved on fisheries and the mechanism for resolving disputes as well as competition rules.

While the two sides have been circling round the same issues for months, it is unclear whether the intervention of the leaders has created the political space for the negotiators finally to bridge the gap.

What is agreed is that time is rapidly running out.

Ursula von der Leyen
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen during a session at the European Parliament in Brussels (Yui Mok/PA)

If there is no deal by the end of the Brexit transition period at the end of the month, then Britain will leave the single market and the customs union and begin trading with the EU on World Trade Organisation terms, with the imposition of tariffs and quotas.

Before then it has to be ratified by both Houses of Parliament in the UK and the European Parliament as well as signed off by the EU leaders.

There had been hopes that could happen at a two-day summit in the Belgian capital starting on Thursday – their final scheduled gathering of the year – but the timetable is looking increasingly tight.

France has publicly warned that it will veto any deal if it is unhappy with the terms, amid signs President Emmanuel Macron is anxious that Mr Barnier is preparing to give too much ground in his determination to get a deal.