EU chief says UK trade pact closer but success is uncertain
Published: Dec 17, 2020 07:08 PM
Britain and the European Union have moved closer to sealing a new trade deal but it was still unclear if they would succeed, the bloc's chief executive said on Wednesday.

Britain and the EU are in the final stretch of talks to keep an estimated one trillion dollars of annual trade free of tariffs and quotas beyond December 31, when the United Kingdom finally transitions out of the world's largest trading bloc.

Ursula von der Leyen at a press conference on Sunday Photo: VCG

With just over two weeks left, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he hoped the EU would "see sense" and agree to a deal that respected Britain's sovereignty, while German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the bloc favored agreement.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen told the European Parliament: "I cannot tell you whether there will be a deal or not. But I can tell you that there is a path to an agreement now. The path may be very narrow but it is there."

Her relatively upbeat comments on the long-running Brexit crisis helped nudge sterling upwards on currency markets. However, Von der Leyen also said two issues were still unsolved.

"We have found a way forward on most issues but two issues still remain outstanding: the level playing field and fisheries," she said. "Issues linked to governance now have largely been resolved. The next days are going to be decisive."

The level playing field refers to EU insistence that Britain does not undercut it on environmental, labor and social standards, as well as state aid, while governance covers the resolution of disputes. 

Von der Leyen said discussions about access to UK fishing waters for EU vessels were still very difficult.

Britain formally left the EU on January 31 but has been in a transition period since then under which rules on trade, travel and business remain unchanged. It finally exits the bloc's single market and customs union on December 31.

Failure to agree a deal would erect trade barriers between the EU and Britain, snarl borders, send shockwaves through financial markets and cause chaos in supply chains across Europe as it also struggles with COVID-19.

Johnson, who won election in 2019 pledging to "get Brexit done" and for Britain to "take back control," said he hoped the EU would "see sense and do a deal." He emphasized the point at a press conference, when he said: "Where we get to with the EU - well, again, that is very much a matter for our friends. They know what the parameters are." His spokesman said no trade deal was still the mostly likely outcome. A later statement from Johnson's office said talks would continue over the coming days. Britain's parliament will begin its Christmas break on Thursday, but could be recalled at short notice and as early as next week to legislate if a deal is reached. 

Merkel said the EU would prefer a deal but is prepared either way, adding there was no breakthrough yet.
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