European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen has called for trade talks with the UK to “intensify” as she prepared to take stock of progress with Boris Johnson.
The two leaders are to speak on Saturday to discuss the “next steps” following the conclusion of the final scheduled round of formal negotiations on a post-Brexit trade deal in Brussels.
The announcement of the video conference call prompted speculation that they could be preparing to launch a final series of intensive talks – dubbed “the tunnel” – in a last push for an agreement.
Speaking at a news conference in the Belgian capital, Mrs von der Leyen said she believed a deal was still possible, but warned that time was running out.
She said the “most difficult issues” – including fisheries and state aid rules – still had to be resolved if they were to get an agreement in place by the end of the Brexit transition period at the end of the year.
“It is good to have a deal – but not at any price,” she said.
“We have made progress on many, many different fields but of course the most difficult ones are still completely open.
“But overall, where there is a will, there is a way, so I think we should intensify the negotiations because it is worth working hard on it.
“We are running out of time – around 100 days to the end of the year – so it is worth stepping up now.”
Downing Street made clear that Mr Johnson still believed there needed to be a deal by the time of the next EU summit in two weeks’ time on October 15.
We share the view that the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland is essential for maintaining peace & stability on the island of Ireland and protecting the integrity of the Single Market. pic.twitter.com/b9jtIJQLTm
— Ursula von der Leyen (@vonderleyen) October 1, 2020
The Prime Minister has indicated that he will walk away from the negotiating table if there is not an agreement by then as it will be too late to implement before the transition ends.
“We have always said the middle of October is where we believe we would need to see a resolution to this in order to make sure we have all the things we need to have in place for the end of the transition period,” a No 10 spokesman said.
“We continue to work towards a free trade agreement. That’s what we want, that is what we will continue to work towards.”
Mrs von der Leyen and the Irish Taoiseach Micheal Martin updated EU leaders in Brussels on the state of the talks as the lead negotiators – Michel Barnier and Lord Frost – were meeting in the Belgian capital.
The EU has been angered by Mr Johnson’s UK Internal Market Bill which gives ministers the power to override provisions in the Brexit divorce settlement relating to Northern Ireland – a measure the UK says is necessary to protect the peace process.
On Thursday, Mrs von der Leyen announced that the commission was taking legal action against the UK for breaching its international treaty obligations in the Withdrawal Agreement.
At her press conference, however, she suggested the issue could be resolved through negotiations.
“It is so important to have this clarified. We have the possibilities now to sort out the difficulties on the island of Ireland and in good faith keeping the Good Friday Agreement. This is very important. This can be done too,” she said.