Boris Johnson and Ursula von der Leyen have agreed to continue Brexit talks, saying that it was worth going the “extra mile” to see whether a trade deal can still be struck, amid signs of progress on key sticking points.
The decision was made during what the two sides described as a useful phone call between the British prime minister and European Commission president, following intensive negotiations in Brussels this weekend.
“Despite the fact that deadlines have been missed over and over we think it is responsible at this point to go the extra mile,” Ms von der Leyen and Mr Johnson said in a joint statement. “We have accordingly mandated our negotiators to continue the talks and to see whether an agreement can even at this late stage be reached.”
The discussions will continue in Brussels, Ms von der Leyen added in a televised statement, saying it had been a “constructive and useful” call with Mr Johnson.
The decision echoes comments from German chancellor Angela Merkel earlier on Sunday that the two sides “should try everything to achieve a result”.
People close to the negotiations suggested there had been signs of progress after a late night of negotiations in the Belgian capital, with one person saying talks were “not going backwards”.
Dominic Raab, foreign secretary, said before the joint statement on Sunday morning that if the EU agreed to move on the question of the so-called level playing field and fish there were details that would “still need to be processed”.
He told the BBC’s Andrew Marr programme that the latest “deadline” for the talks on Sunday was “quite important”, but that they could continue if there was a political will from Ms von der Leyen to shift the EU position.
Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, and his UK counterpart David Frost, met on Sunday morning to evaluate how the technical-level talks had progressed overnight.
Although both sides have sounded increasingly pessimistic over the prospects for a deal ahead of the end of Britain’s Brexit transition period on January 1, the talks have narrowed to one main outstanding issue.
Negotiations on Saturday centred on trying to accommodate the EU’s demands for a mechanism that would make tariff-free trade dependent on the two sides maintaining a regulatory “level playing field”.
Mr Raab said that the EU seemed to want to be able to fire “a torpedo” or launch a “nuclear-style” response against the UK if it deviated in future from the Brussels regulatory model.
But he said that if the EU moderated its demands and treated the UK as a “self-respecting, independent” state, there was “every reason to feel confident” that a deal could be reached. He added: “We are not there yet.”
Mr Raab told Sky News the UK could not accept a deal that saw Britain bound to EU rules in the future. “We are working incredibly hard,” he added. He also hinted that lawyers could pour fudge over a final agreement and that there could be “creative contours in the drafting”.
Britain has rejected different models for the instrument, known in the talks as an “evolution mechanism” or “equivalence mechanism”, which is intended to deter the UK from undercutting the EU if the bloc decides to raise its standards in areas such as environmental rules or workers’ rights.
Mr Johnson has argued that the mechanism amounted to leaving the UK tethered to EU rules — something European leaders, including Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte, denied on Friday.
One EU diplomat said that before this weekend’s talks Brussels had already proposed that the mechanism be administered by a joint committee of EU-UK officials, with arbitration in case of disputes, but that this had still gone too far for the British government.
Negotiators have also continued work on EU fishing rights in UK waters.
A British government official said on Saturday night: “The prime minister will leave no stone unturned in this process, but he is absolutely clear: any agreement must be fair and respect the fundamental position that the UK will be a sovereign nation in three weeks’ time.”
British officials said earlier on Sunday that the situation remained “very difficult”, while senior figures in London fulminated in private against what Mr Johnson regards as the EU’s unreasonable demands.
With additional reporting by Guy Chazan in Berlin