Von der Leyen, Johnson seek to give final push to post-Brexit talks

Brussels, Dec 7 (efe-epa).- European Commission head Ursula von der Leyen and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson will meet face to face in Brussels “in the coming days” to try and give a final push to talks aimed at achieving an accord governing the post-Brexit trade relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union.

The two political leaders announced the meeting after on Monday speaking by telephone for more than an hour.

“We asked our Chief Negotiators and their teams to prepare an overview of the remaining differences to be discussed in a physical meeting in Brussels in the coming days,” the two leaders said in a joint statement.

The pair also said in their statement that “We agreed that the conditions for finalising an agreement are not there due to the remaining significant differences on three critical issues.”

Those three questions, as Von der Leyen and Johnson noted, are the guarantees to ensure fair competition between British and EU firms (the issues known as “level playing field”), fisheries and the mechanisms for resolving disputes about the future agreement (known as “governance”).

The three sticking points cited by Von der Leyen and Frost Barnier have prevented a deal for months.

The two leaders had already spoken by phone on Saturday, after on Friday London and Brussels decided to pause the negotiations in acknowledgement of the distance between the two sides on these three points and so that negotiators could inform their respective sides of the status of the talks.

After the weekend call between Von der Leyen and Johnson, talks were resumed on Sunday in the Belgian capital with EU negotiator Michel Barnier and his British counterpart, David Frost, in attendance along with their respective teams.

The time periods within which a pact is to be finalized have been adjusted several times, but the UK is slated to leave the EU as of Jan. 1, 2021.

Thus, London and Brussels at the present time must conclude their talks and ratify the agreement before the end of the year.

If that does not happen, trade relations between the UK and the EU will default to the more general – and less favorable – customs regulations of the World Trade Organization.

At a minimum, a no-deal scenario would entail a requirement for onerous customs checks at UK and EU ports with the potential for lengthy delays that would disrupt supply chains.

Each side would also be free to levy tariffs on imports from the other.

On Monday morning, Barnier reported to the ambassadors of the 27 EU members on the status of the dialogue with London and reiterated that the three key areas – fisheries, governance and fair competition – “remain open” and there had been no changes in any of them, meaning that the sides were still working to narrow their differences, according to what European sources told EFE.

Barnier told the diplomats that on Monday and Tuesday the “last attempt” to strike a deal would be made, calling the fact that the talks were resumed on Sunday after being halted on Friday a positive development, since “there is still time” to finalize the negotiations.

Several delegations from EU member states informed Barnier that “the important thing is the substance” of the text.

Meanwhile Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said Monday that Barnier gave a very somber and psssimistic analysis of the possibility of reaching an accord with the UK.

His Spanish counterpart, Arancha Gonzalez Laya, admitted that the negotiations are “in stoppage time” – a soccer term for a few minutes of extra playing time occasionally added at the very end of a match – emphasizing that Madrid feels that “an accord is preferable, even though it may be a modest agreement, to the exit of the UK without an agreement.”

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, whose country holds the rotating six-month EU presidency at present, said that “we’re getting closer to a decision, but it’s not clear what that decision will be.”

“In the … EU it’s clear that there cannot be an agreement at ‘any price,’ but … in any case, we want to reach an agreement with the United Kingdom. To achieve that, the negotiations are continuing, they’re very difficult, but time is starting to run out on us,” he said, insisting that the next few days “will be key.”

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