There are “just a few hours left” for the UK and EU to agree a post-Brexit trade deal, says Michel Barnier.
Speaking in the European Parliament on Friday, the EU’s chief negotiator said it was “the moment of truth” for the two sides to come to an agreement.
He said there was still a “chance” of a deal, but the “path is very narrow”.
The comments follow a warning from Boris Johnson that a no deal scenario was “very likely” unless the EU position changed “substantially”.
Talks are resuming between the two teams in Brussels after Mr Johnson and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen spoke on Thursday night.
Mrs von der Leyen said bridging “big differences”, particularly on fishing rights, would be “very challenging”, while the prime minister said discussions were in a “serious situation”.
The UK left the EU on 31 January, but has been following the bloc’s trade rules while the two sides negotiate a trade deal.
If one is not agreed by 31 December, they will go on to trade on World Trade Organization (WTO) rules, which could see charges introduced on goods being sold and bought – and could lead to an increase in prices.
Mr Barnier said it was the UK that decided on the deadline and the EU would have been willing to extend the so-called transition period into next year so talks could continue.
“If they should leave with an agreement or without, it is nevertheless the Brits that decided on that deadline,” he told the European Parliament.
Mr Johnson has insisted the UK will “prosper” with or without a trade deal with the EU.
The talks taking place in Brussels between Mr Barnier and his UK counterpart, Lord David Frost, are aimed at breaking the deadlock on key issues that remain unresolved.
They include rights to fishing waters from 1 January and what is known as the “level playing field” – where the EU does not want UK businesses to get an unfair advantage by moving away from its rules and standards.
On fishing, Mr Barnier said if the UK wants to use its “sovereignty” over its waters to cut access for EU fisherman, “then the European Union also has to maintain its sovereign right to react or compensate adjusting conditions [to access the] single market”.
And on the level playing field, he said there needed to be “fair competition” in place, adding: “If the sovereign United Kingdom would like to depart from those standards, that is their right, but it brings with it consequences when it comes to access to our markets without tariffs or quotas.”
- Brexit happened but rules didn’t change at once: The UK left the European Union on 31 January 2020, but leaders needed time to negotiate a deal for life afterwards – they got 11 months.
- Talks are happening: The UK and the EU have until 31 December 2020 to agree a trade deal as well as other things, such as fishing rights.
- If there is no deal: Border checks and taxes will be introduced for goods travelling between the UK and the EU. But deal or no deal, we will still see changes.
In a statement on Thursday, Downing Street said: “We were making every effort to accommodate reasonable EU requests on the level playing field, but even though the gap had narrowed some fundamental areas remained difficult.
“On fisheries, [the PM] stressed that the UK could not accept a situation where it was the only sovereign country in the world not to be able to control access to its own waters for an extended period and to be faced with fisheries quotas which hugely disadvantaged its own industry.
“The EU’s position in this area was simply not reasonable and if there was to be an agreement it needed to shift significantly.”
It’s long been predicted that competition rules and fishing would be the last areas where compromise is found.
For Boris Johnson’s government, being tied to EU regulations in perpetuity defeats the purpose of Brexit and makes a mockery of “taking back control”.
For the European Union, it will not allow its internal market to be undermined by offering the UK unfair access.
Ursula von der Leyen has claimed the two sides have made a significant step by agreeing to a “strong mechanism” to ensure neither side lowers their environmental or social standards, but are yet to agree on how each could diverge from these levels in the future.
A good number of EU diplomats were quietly confident it was a matter of when, not if, EU access to UK fishing waters could be sorted. But it’s proving trickier than they thought.
Sources tell me that Michel Barnier explained to EU ambassadors at the start of this week that if fishing is resolved, then a wider deal would quickly fall into place.
But there’s no sign of a meeting of minds on fish, with the EU warning openly it may prove to be impossible.
But let’s remember this is the most intense of negotiations and that every public proclamation from London or Brussels will be chosen to strengthening their respective hands in what are the final days and hours of talks.
If a deal is reached between the two sides, it would need to be agreed by parliaments in the UK and EU.
Senior MEPs in the European Parliament have said they will not be “rushed” into signing off a deal on their side, and want to see the text of any agreement by Sunday if they are to approve it by the end of the year.
UK MPs have now finished for the Christmas break, but Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove said on Thursday that they could be called back to ratify a deal in the coming days, were one to be agreed.