Brexit trade talks between the UK and the European Union have hit a stalemate after “very little progress” was made in the third round of negotiations, Britain’s chief negotiator David Frost has said.
After completing the third round of talks on Friday, Mr Frost said that the “most significant outstanding issues” remain unresolved.
His EU counterpart Michel Barnier also said the results of the negotiations this week were “disappointing”, telling a news conference in Brussels that “there was no progress on all the most difficult issues.”
It comes after Boris Johnson led the entire Cabinet in flatly rejecting EU demands for Britain to make concessions on Thursday.
The Government dug in its heels against EU demands that the UK share its fishing waters and obey future European rules on employment and the environment.
Ministers are now planning a “stock-take” before the next round in June to decide if it is worth carrying on.
Mr Frost said he regrets that they have “made very little progress towards agreement on the most significant outstanding issues between us.”
He added: “It is very clear that a standard Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement, with other key agreements on issues like law enforcement, civil nuclear, and aviation alongside, all in line with the Political Declaration, could be agreed without major difficulties in the time available.”
But he insisted the major obstacle to agreement was the EU’s insistence on including a set of “novel and unbalanced proposals” regarding a level playing field on standards.
Mr Frost also said it is “hard to understand why the EU insists on an ideological approach” to negotiations on fishing rights.
He said while there had been “useful discussions on fisheries on the basis of our draft legal text” the EU continues “to insist on fisheries arrangements and access to UK fishing waters in a way that is incompatible with our future status as an independent coastal state.”
“We are fully committed to agreeing fishing provisions in line with the Political Declaration, but we cannot agree arrangements that are manifestly unbalanced and against the interests of the UK fishing industry.
“It is hard to understand why the EU insists on an ideological approach which makes it more difficult to reach a mutually beneficial agreement.
Mr Frost called on the EU to change their approach before the next round of talks beginning on June 1.
“In order to facilitate those discussions, we intend to make public all the UK draft legal texts during next week so that the EU’s member states and interested observers can see our approach in detail,” Mr Frost said.
“The UK will continue to work hard to find an agreement, for as long as there is a constructive process in being, and continues to believe that this is possible.”
Meanwhile, Mr Barnier said that the rights of citizens is the priority for both the UK and the EU in negotiations.
Speaking at the European Commission press conference, he said: “You cannot have the best of both worlds. In parallel to these negotiations, both the UK and the EU have a legal commitment to implement the Withdrawal Agreement.
“Here, citizens’ rights are the priority for both sides and since the very beginning the UK tells us it has some concerns about the treatment of British nationals in the EU.
“We yesterday received a letter from Michael Gove. I want to tell you that the commission is very, very attentive to this issue and we have just published guidelines to support all 27 member states to live up to the commitments of the Withdrawal Agreement.
“But at the same time, we will also be watching closely to make sure that EU citizens residing in the UK do not face unfair treatment or any kind of discrimination and the European Parliament is particularly attentive to this.”
The official said they remained “optimistic” a deal could be struck.
Asked if there would be a deal, they said: “I’m optimistic as we all are actually… it’s easy to see how you could do a pretty standard and major free trade agreement quite quickly – there’s a good level of understanding – and I think it’s in both our interests obviously to get to that.
“So I’m optimistic that in the end that sort of logic can prevail but nobody can be certain of this.”
They added: “We’ve always made clear that if an agreement can’t be reached then trading on what we call Australia terms is perfectly doable and satisfactory.”
In little over a month, Mr Johnson and EU leaders are scheduled to have a summit, likely over video, to analyse the talks’ progress.
Britain officially left the 27-nation bloc on January 31, but remains within the EU’s economic and regulatory orbit until the end of the year.
The two sides have until then to work out a new relationship covering trade, security and a host of other issues — or face a chaotic split that would be economically disruptive for both sides, but especially for the UK.
The UK-EU divorce agreement allows for the deadline to be extended by two years, but Mr Johnson’s government insists it will not lengthen the transition period beyond December 31.
Most trade deals take years to negotiate, so finishing something as fundamental as this in 11 months would be a Herculean task at the best of times.
Many politicians, experts and diplomats believe it is impossible during a pandemic that has focused governments’ resources on preserving public health and averting economic collapse.
If no deal on their future relationship is agreed by then, a cliff-edge economic departure would loom again for Britain, with uncertainly over customs rules, airline slots, financial regulation and other standards.
Both sides are already facing a serious recession because of the pandemic.