Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Tuesday that Britain could abandon post-Brexit trade talks, a day after he agreed to meet the head of the European Commission in a last-ditch attempt to avert a chaotic split from the EU at the end of the year.
With just over three weeks before Britain completes its departure from the bloc, Johnson is due to meet the European Union executive’s president, Ursula von der Leyen, in the coming days after negotiators failed to close the gaps.
But Ireland’s foreign minister said the impasse was difficult to resolve and, unless there is a breakthrough “in the next day or two”, EU leaders meeting in Brussels on Thursday and Friday would have to discuss contingency plans for a “no-deal”.
“Unfortunately we are facing the prospect of a no-deal Brexit if something doesn’t break that in the next day or two,” he told parliament in Dublin.
The language on both sides has hardened since the talks faltered again, with Johnson describing the situation as “very tricky” and the EU’s chief negotiator saying the bloc was fully united and would “never sacrifice our future for the present”.
Both sides have called on the other to compromise to get a deal over the line, and see the meeting – for which a date has not been announced – as the last throw of the dice to seek a political solution to their months-long deadlock.
Since Britain left the EU in January, the two sides have been stuck over three issues, raising the prospect of what many businesses say is a nightmare scenario – no agreement to protect around $1 trillion in annual trade from tariffs and quotas.
Asked whether he would try until the last possible moment to do a deal on trade, Johnson told reporters: “Yeah of course.”
“We’re always hopeful but you know there may come a moment when we have to acknowledge that it’s time to draw stumps and that’s just the way it is,” said Johnson, using a cricketing term for the end of play.
“We will prosper mightily under any version and if we have to go for an Australian solution then that’s fine too.”
Australia has no free trade deal with the EU, and so the bulk of its trade is on basic World Trade Organisation terms.
EU negotiator Michel Barnier was equally combative, saying on Twitter after briefing European affairs ministers of the 27-nation bloc: “Full unity. We will never sacrifice our future for the present. Access to our market comes with conditions.”
Brexit trade deal talks “very difficult” as France threatens to veto:
Ray of hope?
In a sign of some movement in parallel talks on implementing an earlier agreement on the terms of Briatin’s withdrawal – not the terms of future trade – the two sides said they had reached agreement regarding arrangements on the Ireland-Northern Ireland border.
The Irish government welcomed the agreement, which avoids the need for a hard border on the only land frontier between the EU and the United Kingdom. Northern Ireland, in effect, stays in the EU’s customs union and single market for goods after December 31 when the rest of the United Kingdom leaves fully.
“Hopefully this is a signal that the British government is in deal-making mood,” Coveney told RTE news, though he cautioned in remarks to parliament that reaching a trade deal with London was far more difficult.
Britain, which joined the EU’s precursor in 1973, formally left on Jan. 31 but has since been in a transition period under which rules on trade, travel and business remain unchanged.
With little sign that the positions are narrowing, the European Commission said talks could continue after the end of this year. Britain has repeatedly ruled this out.