The future of a post-Brexit trade deal is back in the hands of negotiation officials after a face-to-face meeting between Boris Johnson and EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen failed to break the deadlock.
The two leader talked for three hours last night over a seafood dinner that followed months of wrangling about issues including fishing rights. But the crunch dinner date in Brussels ended with a big helping of disappointment, as the two sides announced that they were still “far apart” and that “very large gaps remain”.
Johnson and von der Leyen did manage to agree a new deadline for reaching a deal, however, with Sunday now set as the cut-off point. But with just 72 hours remaining, what is the mood among Europe’s other leaders?
The most vocal EU27 leader in recent months has been Emmanuel Macron, who put his head above the parapet last week to say that he would veto any deal that did not satisfy French interests.
The French leader has the backing of his counterparts in Belgium, Italy, Spain and the Netherlands, all of whom have “demanded to see the full text of any agreement before Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, announces there is a deal”, the Financial Times reports.
As talks drag on about the unresolved issues of fishing, level playing field rules and the enforcement process for any deal agreed, a senior EU diplomat told the paper that the bloc’s leaders are worried about having a treaty shoved “down our throat”.
The president of Belgium’s Wallonia region, Elio Di Rupo, tweeted yesterday that he would “not hesitate to ask my parliament to use its veto power… if the future trade agreements with the United Kingdom cross the red lines set by my government”.
The mood music emanating from Italy also points to trouble for the UK, with Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte telling his parliament on Wednesday that “a deal remains in the interests of all, but not at any cost”. Referring to the issue of a level playing field for business, Conte added: “The EU must not give a millimeter.”
That message was echoed by Angela Merkel, though in characteristically more diplomatic terms.
The German chancellor told the Bundestag that while a deal is still possible, “we are also prepared, if there are conditions on the British side that we cannot accept, to go down a path that is without an agreement”.
Alarm bells are likely to be sounding at Downing Street over the warning from Germany – which had previously clashed with France over the level of acceptable compromise to get a deal over the line.
And ministers hoping to secure a last-minute treaty will be further dismayed by the EU’s decision to lay out the bloc’s no-deal planning. The move follows calls from member states to make public the “targeted contingency measures”.
Von der Leyen posted a press release outlining the plans on Twitter earlier today, and wrote that while negotiations were “still ongoing… the end of the transition is near”.
“There is no guarantee that if & when an agreement is found it can enter into force on time,” she said. “We have to be prepared, including for not having a deal in place on 1 January. Today we present contingency measures.”
But the EU’s decision may be driven more by time constraints than by a desire to see the UK leave without an agreement in place.
End of the road?
The European Council is meeting today at a summit at which the bloc had been hoping to sign off a deal. But as Politico’s Brussels Playbook reports, without no such deal on the table, “there will be no debate on the matter, let alone a vote to approve any potential pact”.
Summing up the atmosphere in Brussels, an official told the site that “there is not the intention to have a decision or a debate on the item” today.
“There is no decision or milestone at this stage,” the official added.
Negotiators are now racing to agree a future trade deal by Sunday, although as BBC political correspondent Jessice Parker notes, “Brexit deadlines have been missed before”.
“But the ticking clock of the transition period tells us this can’t go on much longer,” she adds.