U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen agreed to give talks on a post-Brexit trade deal one more shot after speaking by phone on Sunday, a sign that they may be able to salvage an accord after days of pessimism.
In a joint statement issued following their conversation, they said that “despite the exhaustion after almost a year of negotiations” they would “go the extra mile.”
Their remarks came despite a disastrous dinner on Wednesday night, after which they both said a deal looked unlikely and set an end-of-weekend to decide whether to call off nine months of negotiations. On Sunday, they said their call was “useful” — but made no reference to the probability of reaching an agreement.
“We’re going to continue to try, and we’re going to try with all our hearts and we will be as creative as we possibly can,” Johnson said in a pooled interview with broadcasters. “I’m afraid we’re still very far apart on some key things. But where there is life, there is hope.”
U.K. and European Union officials will now remain in Brussels, where they have been locked in talks for the past week, and will try to forge a deal over the next few days. It isn’t out of the question they will reach one by the middle of the week, people on both sides said.
Negotiations between the two teams broke up shortly after midnight on Saturday with officials expressing a renewed sense of optimism. But they warned that important questions still remain unanswered.
“We discussed the major unresolved topics,” Johnson and von der Leyen said in their joint statement. “We have accordingly mandated our negotiators to continue the talks and to see whether an agreement can even at this late stage be reached.”
The negotiations have been hamstrung by disagreements over two key issues: what access EU fishing boats will have to U.K. waters and how to ensure a level competitive playing field for businesses — in particular whether the U.K. will have to abide by any future changes in the bloc’s environmental, social, or labor standards. Britain has so far resisted that on grounds of sovereignty.
“The U.K. can’t be locked into the EU’s regulatory orbit and we’ve obviously got to take back control of our fisheries four-and-a-half years after people voted for it,” Johnson said. “The most likely think now is of course that we have to get ready for WTO terms.”
If an accord isn’t reached by the end of the year, Britain’s commercial relationship with its biggest and nearest partner will default to terms set by the World Trade Organization. Businesses and consumers would be hit by costs and disruption as tariffs and quotas are imposed for the first time in a generation.
Over the past two days, technical talks between the two teams have focused on fishing, while the chief negotiators held separate discussions in the commission’s Berlaymont headquarters on the level playing field, which is now the most difficult issue.
The EU has suggested that while it wouldn’t force the U.K. to stick to its rules, there should be a mechanism to allow it to retaliate if Britain doesn’t raise its standards in the same way the bloc does. While the U.K. has rejected this approach on grounds of sovereignty, its chief negotiator floated a fresh solution on Saturday, raising hopes that a compromise is in the air.
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab had earlier said that the U.K. would only agree to continue the talks if the EU committed to moving its positions on fisheries and the level playing field.
“The bar is quite high for us to be able to keep talking,” he told BBC TV. “We would need a political level commitment to move on those two key issues.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the EU “should try everything to get a result.”
“The negotiating position hasn’t changed in any way, and the fact that the talks are not easy is clear,” she told a news conference in Berlin on Sunday. “Britain is leaving the internal market, and we of course need to make sure that there are fair conditions for competition in place if the legal situation between the U.K. and the EU moves further apart.”