European Union leaders reiterated calls for Britain to make further concessions in their trade negotiations as officials in Brussels grow increasingly uncertain that Boris Johnson will remain at the table.
The British prime minister will decide after a two-day EU summit concludes on Friday whether to walk away from the talks based on whether he thinks the bloc is serious about reaching a deal or not. He wants the EU to agree to round-the-clock negotiations to strike an agreement within the next two weeks.
While the U.K. thinks it has gone as far as it can, and wants the EU to compromise, leaders from the bloc decided that the onus is on the British government. They want the EU and U.K. to “continue negotiations in the coming weeks” and called on the U.K. to “make the necessary moves to make an agreement possible,” according to the summit communique. That stops short of the intensification of talks that the U.K. is demanding.
Johnson will assess the mood of the EU based on signals from leaders and the content of their discussion, according to a person familiar with the U.K. position who asked not to be identified because the deliberations are private. In a sign that the EU’s messaging will go further than the communique, leaders took the rare step of publishing it before holding the bulk of their discussion.
Negotiators from the two sides barely made any progress this week, and the EU is no longer as confident as it has been that Johnson won’t carry out his threat to abandon the discussions, two EU officials said.
“If conditions aren’t met, it’s possible we won’t have an agreement,” French President Emmanuel Macron said as he arrived at the meeting. “We are ready for that.”
For EU negotiators, the gathering is also a balancing act between countries like France, which is reluctant to compromise on fisheries — one of the main obstacles to a deal — and other member states that don’t want to risk the talks collapsing.
Shortly before leaders began their discussions on Brexit, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced she was leaving to go into isolation because a member of her staff tested positive for Covid-19. She added that her own test had come back negative.
While her absence is unlikely to substantially alter the outcome of Thursday’s debate, it means the summit has lost someone who the U.K. considers to be one of their most helpful allies in persuading Macron to soften his stance.
Johnson spoke with von der Leyen on Wednesday night, telling her he was “disappointed” by the lack of progress in the negotiations.
The prime minister met with his chief negotiator, David Frost, who returned to London on Thursday morning, according to Downing Street spokesman Jamie Davies. A person familiar with the discussions said earlier that Frost was set to advise the prime minster to remain in the talks for at least two more weeks because a deal is still possible.
That may not be enough for the prime minister who wants EU leaders to demonstrate that they are ready to inject energy into the process and tell their negotiators to work around the clock over the next two weeks.
The wording of the communique shouldn’t be seen as a toughening of the EU’s position, but an attempt to balance the competing positions of the 27 governments, an official from the bloc said.
“The situation is too serious to get caught up on this or that word,” Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte told Bloomberg Television on his way into the summit. “Come January, I don’t think citizens are going to care whether in some summit the word was speed up, intensify or continue.”
Resolving the two sides’ disagreements over fisheries and business subsidies will be key to securing a deal. Without one, millions of businesses and consumers will have to grapple with additional costs and disruption after the U.K. leaves the EU’s single market and customs union on Dec. 31.
“We want a deal, but not at any cost,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said as she arrived at the talks in Brussels. “It must be a fair deal.”
|Timetable to Departure|
The process is now becoming as much of a negotiation between the EU’s 27 national governments — especially between the powerhouses of Germany and France — as it is between the EU and Britain, as the bloc works out what sort of deal it can live with, one European diplomat said.
Macron’s demands to maintain his country’s current access to British fishing waters are now the biggest roadblock to a deal, to the increasing frustration of his European allies.
In a thinly veiled attack on the French position, a German government official said on Wednesday that once interested European coastal nations realize that the alternative to no deal is no access to British fishing grounds, there could be increased flexibility.
— With assistance by Katharina Rosskopf, Ania Nussbaum, Richard Bravo, Nikos Chrysoloras, Sotiris Nikas, Paul Tugwell, Raymond Colitt, Stephanie Bodoni, Boris Groendahl, Diederik Baazil, Maria Tadeo, Jan Bratanic, and Joe Mayes