The EU’s chief negotiator said on Thursday there had been good progress in trade talks with Britain that aim to prevent a turbulent Brexit finale in two weeks’ time, but a senior British minister put the chances of success at less than 50%.
As talks go down to the wire, optimism had risen that a deal was imminent to keep the goods trade that makes up half of annual EU-UK trade, worth nearly a trillion dollars in all, free of tariffs and quotas beyond Dec. 31.
But both Britain and the EU still say there are gaps to be bridged, and it was unclear whether either side would shift far enough to open the way for a breakthrough.
British cabinet minister Michael Gove, in charge of implementing an earlier divorce deal, told a parliamentary committee: “I think that regrettably the chances are more likely that we won’t secure an agreement.” Asked about the probability of a deal, he said: “Less than 50%.”
Earlier, interior minister Priti Patel said the talks had entered the “tunnel” – EU jargon for the final, secretive make-or-break phase.
“Good progress, but last stumbling blocks remain,” EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier tweeted. “We will only sign a deal protecting EU interests and principles.”
Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the face of the 2016 Brexit referendum campaign, has long said he will not accept a deal that fails to respect British sovereignty after winning an election last year on a pledge to “take back control”.
Gove said some of the remaining differences went “to the very heart of the (government’s) mandate”.
An EU official, who declined to be named, said disagreements over fisheries were not yet resolved, and many more minor issues still required “polishing”.
Two EU diplomats and an official with the bloc said they did not expect a deal to come together by Friday.
Many deadlines have been missed in the talks since Britain left the bloc in January, but the European Parliament said it could hold an emergency plenary in late December should a deal come together by Monday.
If it came later, however, EU diplomats said the bloc might still put it in place from Jan. 1 without lawmakers’ consent.
Britain joined the EU in 1973, and formally left on Jan. 31. Since then, it has been in a transition period under which rules on trade, travel and business remain unchanged, with the country remaining within the EU customs union and single market.
Failure to agree a deal on goods trade would send shockwaves through financial markets, damage the economies of Europe, snarl borders and sow disorder along delicate supply chains that stretch across Europe and beyond.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has said this week there was now a “very narrow” path to agreement, though success was not guaranteed.
Two main issues – a level playing field for business activity on both sides, and fisheries – remain outstanding in talks. Both illustrate the vastly different understanding of Brexit in Brussels and London.
What for Johnson is an issue of sovereignty is an existential question for the EU.
Johnson portrays Brexit as a chance to build Britain into a fully independent economy that would be much more agile than its competitors, and so does not want to be tied into the EU’s orbit and its rules for years to come.
EU powers fear London wants the best of both worlds – preferential access to lucrative EU markets, with the advantage of setting its own rules. They say this would undermine a project that has sought to bind the nations of Europe, ruined by World War Two, into a global trading power.