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The latest round of intensified negotiations have been taking place in London this week that has seen Britain and the EU embarking on high-level contacts between Boris Johnson and EU chiefs. Last month, the Prime Minister said there was “no reason” why an outline trade deal could not be struck by the end of this month. But the UK’s chief negotiator David Frost has said “considerable gaps remain in the most difficult areas” following the latest round of talks in the capital.
He said in a statement: “It is unfortunately clear that we will not reach in July the ‘early understanding on the principles underlying any agreement’ that was set as an aim at the high-evel meeting on June 15.”
He added: “We have also had constructive discussions on trade in goods and services, and in some of the sectoral agreements, notably on transport, social security cooperation, and participation in EU programmes. We have also continued to deepen our understanding of each other’s constraints on law enforcement.
“But considerable gaps remain in the most difficult areas, that is, the so-called level playing field and on fisheries.
“We have always been clear that our principles in these areas are not simple negotiating positions but expressions of the reality that we will be a fully independent country at the end of the transition period.”
The EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier is expected to vent his anger and frustration at the lack of progress in Brexit at a press conference later this afternoon, while UK counterpart is also expected to make similar comments.
UK officials are continuing to play down any fears a deal might not be struck in time, insisting any criticisms Mr Barnier makes should be taken with “a large dose of salt”.
But Brussels is evidently starting to lose patience, with one person briefed on the talks telling the Financial Times the EU wants any agreement to be approved at a summit of the bloc’s leaders on October 15 – in just 84 days’ time.
Cabinet office minister Michael Gove has also previously admitted the true deadline for a deal is in October, and UK officials now expect serious negotiations in a number of key areas to take place in September.
The EU is becoming increasingly concerned over the logistics of getting a deal legally ratified before the end of the post-Brexit transition period on December 31, a deadline Mr Johnson has refused to extend.
If a political agreement is struck, this would have to go through an intensive process of being converted into legally watertight text and translated into multiple European languages before it could be ratified.
But the person briefed on the talks warned if a deal is not ready to be put before EU leaders at the summit in 84 days time, the ratification process in the European Parliament would be out into question.
This would be because parliament would want time to study the text in detail before voting on it, which could happen as late as December.
The insider warned: “The writing of the legal text has to start in September.”
A further round of intensive talks is not scheduled to take place until the week beginning August 7, but officials are reportedly not expecting any significant progress to be made before September.
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Mr Johnson and his UK negotiating team remain keen on a trade deal with the EU, but have warned they will not relent from their red lines and agree to one at any price.
The post-Brexit trade talks between the two sides began in Brussels back in March and were conducted via videoconference calls over the following three months because of lockdown measures introduced from the coronavirus pandemic.
Face-to-face talks resumed earlier this month, with the likes of Mr Johnson having greater involvement in a desperate attempt to get an agreement over the line.
But both sides have traded several vicious blows, lamenting the lack of progress made and criticising each other’s negotiating stances on a number of key areas seen as make-or-break for any deal being agreed.
A number of stumbling blocks remain, including the so called level-playing field rules for business, access for EU fishermen in British waters, and dispute-settlement arrangements.
The EU has also been left frustrated at the UK unwillingness to set out its intentions on state-aid, without which Brussels said it will be impossible to settle disagreements on the level playing field.
Earlier this month, Mr Barnier warned “serious divergences” remain between the two sides, despite the pace of talks being stepped up significantly over recent weeks.
The apparent lack of progress from the UK and EU, as well as the unwillingness to move from key red lines, has intensified fears a deal will not be agreed in time.
Angela Merkel – whose country Germany took over the rotating presidency of the EU on July 1 – has repeatedly warned leaders throughout the bloc to prepare for a no deal outcome.
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