Teams from the UK and the European Union resumed their face-to-face talks on a post-Brexit trade deal on Saturday. Both sides sounded gloomy about reaching an agreement in the remaining time.
EU negotiator Michel Barnier returned to London to meet his UK counterpart David Frost. Conversations were practically held last week when Barnier went through a period of self-isolation after a member of his team tested positive for the coronavirus.
COVID-19 is just a complication in negotiations that involve important issues like fishing rights and rules for fair competition.
Barnier said Friday that long distance calls had made little progress and “the same significant differences persist”.
The UK left the EU earlier this year, but remained part of the bloc’s economic embrace during an 11-month transition as the two sides tried to negotiate a new free trade agreement that was due to come into force on January 1.
The talks have already moved past mid-November, which has long been seen as the deadline to secure an agreement in time for it to be approved and ratified by UK and EU legislators.
If there is no agreement, New Years Day will bring major disruption as tariffs and other barriers to trade between the UK and the EU are put in place overnight. That will hurt both sides, but the UK, which does almost half of its trade with the EU, will be hit the hardest.
While both sides want a deal, they have fundamental differences in what comes with it. The 27-state EU is accusing the UK of retaining access to the bloc’s huge market without agreeing to respect its rules, and is calling for tough guarantees of a level playing field that the UK must meet to export to the EU.
The UK claims that the EU does not respect its independence and is making demands that it has not made of other countries with which it has free trade agreements, such as Canada.
To reach an agreement, the EU must curtail its demands for continued access to British fishing waters, and Britain must agree to some alignment with the bloc’s rules – difficult issues for politicians on both sides.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson told Irish President Micheal Martin on Friday that he was still determined to “reach an agreement that respects the sovereignty of the United Kingdom,” Johnson’s office said.