There has been no breakthrough in talks between the European Union and Britain as chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier travels to London amid rising concern that insufficient time remains to prevent a damaging No Deal scenario on January 1st.
The “same significant divergences persist” between the two sides, Mr Barnier said on Friday as he announced that he and his team were no longer in quarantine after a Covid-19 case in a senior EU negotiator disrupted the talks.
“Physical negotiations can continue,” Mr Barnier wrote.
The negotiator is set to update ambassadors of the member states and members of the European Parliament on the state of talks, as well as meeting with fisheries ministers.
Talks have long been stuck over the contentious issues of how to ensure fair competition between UK and EU companies, how to arbitrate future disputes on the deal, and how to divide fishing rights in waters that EU boats have been sharing but that fall under Britain’s economic area.
EU officials are increasingly concerned that it may be unfeasible to ratify and implement any deal that can be reached, as the time considered to be the “last moment” to strike a deal passed weeks ago. Pressure for clarity is rising from business groups.
The Irish Government has warned that discussions on the stumbling blocks standing in the way of a deal are “very, very difficult”, while earlier this week European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said it was unclear whether one could be reached.
“The next phase is going to be decisive. The European Union is well prepared for a no-deal scenario but of course we prefer to have an agreement,” Von der Leyen told the European Parliament on Wednesday.
The EU side believes that prime minister Boris Johnson must make a decision to move in order for a deal to be reached. The bloc has also warned that a deal cannot be reached if the London government persists with contested clauses of its Internal Markets Bill, which override parts of the Withdrawal Agreement struck last year that were designed to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland.
Any deal must be ratified by Westminster and the European Parliament, where MEPs are concerned that the timetable is becoming difficult for the agreement to be translated into EU languages, scrutinised and voted on by the end of the year.
If no trade deal can be struck, tariffs will automatically come into force on trade between the UK and EU, including punishing levies on vital Irish industries such as beef and dairy. The legal basis for many aspects of the economic relations between the EU and its former member will disolve overnight, something expected to cause significant damage and disruption.
Even if a deal can be found, customs declarations will be required on trade between the UK and EU and there will be checks on goods travelling from Britain to Northern Ireland. Governments have warned companies to check their supply chains and familiarity with customs to ensure they are prepared.