U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, agreed on Sunday after a phone call that they should go “the extra mile” to try to find a compromise on a trade deal.
In a joint statement, the two leaders acknowledged that “deadlines have been missed over and over” during the long protracted negotiations the two sides have had for more than 10 months on their future relationship.
In a dinner on Wednesday in Brussels, Johnson and von der Leyen had said Sunday would be the date for a “firm decision” on whether it was worth to continue talking — or go for a so-called no-deal Brexit and a chaotic exit for the U.K. from the European single market on Dec. 31.
Johnson cautioned on Sunday that the two sides were “still very far apart on some key things.”
U.K. and EU negotiators have been at loggerheads on the issue of European fishermen’s rights to trawl in British waters, and on the regulatory “level playing field” by which the U.K. should abide as the price of accessing the European market.
“But where there’s life, there’s hope. We’re going to keep talking to see what we can do. The U.K. certainly won’t be walking away from the talks,” Johnson said on Sunday after his phone call with von der Leyen.
The European Commission president had given on Friday a downbeat report to EU leaders on her dinner date with Johnson, warning that “the probability of a no-deal [was] higher than of a deal,” according to a senior EU diplomat quoted by Reuters.
This didn’t come as a total surprise to the heads of state and governments gathered in a summit to talk about their economic recovery plans and budget for next year. The mood after the last-chance dinner on Wednesday had been resolutely subdued, with the U.K. government briefing the British press that the EU had presented demands deemed “unacceptable.”
The EU also published on Thursday a set of “contingency measures” to ensure that road traffic and air travel would still be possible between the U.K. and the continent on Jan. 1, including regulations that would have to be passed by the European Parliament before the end of the year.
The optimistic statement by Johnson that the U.K. would “prosper mightily” if it goes the “Australian way” is contested by most economists, including the country’s Office for Budget Responsibility, which has shown that a no-deal Brexit will have a more adverse impact on the U.K. economy than the coronavirus pandemic.
But it also prompted a warning from former Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull. “Be careful what you wish for,” he said in a BBC interview, noting that there are “very large barriers to Australian trade with Europe” — which is precisely the reason why the two sides are currently negotiating the same type of trade deal that the U.K. is walking away from.