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Why Last Minute Brexit Talks Are Still Going When The UK And EU Are “Very Far Apart” On A Deal

A lengthy dinner between Boris Johnson and Ursula von der Leyen in Brussels failed to unlock the stalled Brexit talks last night (PA)

5 min read

After a dinner that was meant to unblock the Brexit talks just three weeks before the transition ends, the watchword is “gloomy” from both the UK and the EU on the chances of a deal still being struck.

Despite a mammoth meeting in Brussels between Boris Johnson and Ursula von der Leyen last night, Downing Street said “there were still major differences” to be ironed out.

The European Commission president said after a “lively and interesting discussion” they “understand each other’s positions”, before tersely adding: “They remain far apart”.

So far apart in fact they they couldn’t even agree on a joint statement and sent out words to the media separately, which hardly indicates a free trade agreement is imminent.

This morning both Cabinet office minister Penny Mordaunt and Swedish prime minister Stefan Lofven separately said the chances of a deal are now “gloomy”.

So with just three weeks ago until the end of the transition period, why are the two sides still going at it, and will it lead anywhere other than over the cliff edge with no deal?

For any Brexit optimists still left out there, it was seen as a good sign that Johnson and von der Leyen left their dinner saying talks are going to continue through the weekend.

And Sunday's deadline is actually a deadline on deciding whether to extend the deadline for talks to continue, which does leave scope for another few weeks of this to-ing and fro-ing. 

It has already been floated that Parliament would keep sitting until Christmas if MPs need to vote on a potential deal, and EU leaders could hold another summit before December 31 to approve it.

Others believe this is simply choreography so both sides can come away claiming victory if a Free Trade Agreement is signed, as neither side would want to leave it so late to confirm they are dropping into a no-deal scenario.

Tory MP David Jones, a leading figure in the Brexiteer ERG caucus, is not among the optimists, and believes talks are going on because “both sides want to show that they're going the extra mile”.

He told PoliticsHome: “They're just allowing that time to elapse before they decide whether or not they should pull stumps.”

But the commitment to never saying the chances of a deal are over, even if only because nobody is willing to be the one who calls time on the negotiations, like two teenagers saying “no, you put the phone down” to each other, does leave open the possibility of an accidental no deal.

The likelihood of such a scenario, which means trade on World Trade Organisation rules, tariffs on goods crossing the border and other trade barriers, appeared to have been heightened this morning after the EU published its contingency plans for that outcome.

They strike a tough line in areas like reciprocal air and road connectivity, and propose continental fishing boats will still have access to UK waters during 2021.

A Number 10 spokesman dismissed the emergency plans, saying: “We would never accept arrangements and access to UK fishing waters which are incompatible with our status as an independent coastal state."

Which means the two sides don’t even seem to be able to strike a deal on ‘no deal’, and doesn’t bode well for the next few days between chief negotiators Lord Frost and Michel Barnier.

Because as well as fishing there is still the thorny issue of the so-called “level playing field” to be thrashed out, which the UK has again been clear it will not back down on.

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said “frankly we have not seen enough pragmatism and flexibility on the EU side” on this issue, and Brexiteers feel it is solely Brussels that must now compromise on this fundamental point of principle.

Johnson, however, said he would never accept a border down the Irish Sea, but most observers – including the Tories’ erstwhile governmental partners the DUP – think the Northern Ireland protocol, which he signed up to, and Michael Gove confirmed will come into force come what may on January 1, is exactly that.

So is there a scenario in which a deal is even possible at this stage? That seems to hinge on whether Johnson is willing to go back on a core negotiating principle, and see if he can get it through parliament. 

On that front he no longer has to worry about the Brexiteer rebels in the ERG, with the Commons arithmetic that brought down Theresa May now heavily in his favour. Even without Labour, who look most likely to vote for a deal, so he could be winding down the clock to try and bounce MPs into accepting a climbdown?

Jones disagrees: “I don't think that there's any question that the government would want to bounce us into anything. 

“We'd have to look at the text, which as I understand it is several hundred pages long. So that's not going to be done overnight, we need certainly at least a few days to read and consider it. 

“And that, of course, means that there's every likelihood that if we are going to be having a vote on it, then it probably is going to be between Christmas and the New Year.”

If Boris Johnson does manage to reach an agreement in Brussels, MPs could find themselves chewing over the details of the deal with their sprouts ahead of a last-minute post-Christmas vote.

 “I suppose it gives you something to do," Jones jokingly adds. "Christmas can sometimes drag a bit.”

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