British Prime Minister Boris Johnson met EU chief Ursula von der Leyen on Wednesday for a working dinner that could save — or kill off — hopes for a post-Brexit trade deal.
Johnson jetted back to the city where he made his name as an EU-bashing newspaper reporter and headed to the Berlaymont, headquarters of von der Leyen’s EU Commission.
After posing for press pictures, they headed in for a meeting that marks an almost-final chance of a breakthrough before Britain leaves the EU single market at the end of the year.
“A good deal is still there to be done,” Johnson had told the UK parliament before setting off for Brussels, while insisting Britain would “prosper mightily” with or without agreement.
Talks are blocked over the issue of fair competition, with Britain refusing to accept a mechanism that would allow the EU to respond swiftly if UK and EU business rules diverge over time and put European firms at a disadvantage.
“Our friends in the EU are currently insisting that if they pass a new law in the future, with which we in this country do not comply, they want the automatic right… to punish us and to retaliate,” Johnson said.
– ‘Still a chance’ –
EU negotiator Michel Barnier and his UK counterpart David Frost have narrowed the gaps over eight months but London insists it will reclaim full sovereignty at the end of the year after half-a-century of close economic integration.
If Britain leaves the EU single market in three weeks without a follow-on trade agreement, the damage caused by delays to travellers and freight at its borders will be compounded by import tariffs.
In Berlin, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel said there was still a chance for a deal. But she warned: “We must not endanger the integrity of the common market.”
Merkel said Britain would have to accept that as UK and EU laws move apart after Brexit there must be a way to ensure a “level playing field for tomorrow and the day after tomorrow”.
“Otherwise we’d end up with unfair conditions for competition, which we can’t ask of our companies,” she said.
Merkel and the other EU leaders, including a sceptical French President Emmanuel Macron, are to meet in Brussels on Thursday for their planned EU summit, but Johnson has not been invited.
Von der Leyen will update the member state leaders on her talks with the British premier, but no decision will be made.
“It is not the intention to plan a discussion on the matter,” summit host Charles Michel, president of the European Council, said in a letter outlining the agenda.
– Demolition claim –
Johnson spoke by telephone to Von der Leyen on Monday to secure the last chance dinner invitation after negotiations between Barnier and Frost broke off without agreement.
He will arrive for talks at the Berlaymont, the EU headquarters building he once wrongly reported was scheduled for demolition when he covered Brussels as a newspaper journalist in the early 1990s.
But officials on both sides expressed pessimism ahead of the last-ditch encounter.
Barnier, meanwhile, gave a downbeat briefing to European ministers ahead of Thursday’s EU leaders summit, then tweeted: “We will never sacrifice our future for the present. Access to our market comes with conditions.”
A senior Europan source said the question was whether the EU would respond automatically and unilaterally if commercial standards diverge, or whether they would leave space to negotiate.
“The sticking point in the negotiations is the equivalence clause requested by the EU to avoid distortions of competition if the UK refuses to align itself over time with EU tax, social and environmental standards,” he said.
But a UK government source said: “If we can make progress at a political level it may allow Lord Frost and his team to resume negotiations over the coming days.”
In recent weeks several member states, led by France, have expressed concern that Germany and Von der Leyen’s European Commission have been too ready to compromise with London.