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As deadline nears, Johnson says Britain could abandon Brexit trade talks

LONDON (Reuters) – 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 break the stalemate.

Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson walks outside Downing Street, in London, Britain, December 8, 2020. REUTERS/Simon Dawson

With just over three weeks before Britain finally completes its departure from the bloc, Johnson is due to meet European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in the coming days after negotiators failed to close the gaps.

The language on both sides has hardened since the talks faltered again, with Johnson describing the situation as “very tricky” and the EU’s 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 as the last throw of the dice to see if there is a political way through to narrow the positions.

In a sign of some movement in parallel talks on implementing an earlier deal on the terms of Britain’s exit – as opposed to the terms of future trade – ministers said they had reached agreement regarding arrangements on the Ireland-Northern Ireland border.

As a result, Britain said it would now remove clauses in legislation that were in breach of the exit treaty signed in January.

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 their nightmare scenario – no agreement to govern around $1 trillion in annual trade.

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.

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“We will prosper mightily under any version and if we have to go for an Australian solution then that’s fine too,” he added. Australia has no free trade deal with the EU, which means the bulk of its trade is on World Trade Organization terms.

EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier was equally combative, saying on Twitter after briefing the bloc’s General Affairs Council: “Full unity. We will never sacrifice our future for the present. Access to our market comes with conditions.”

DAYS TO GO?

Before Johnson and von der Leyen sit down, their negotiators have been charged with preparing an overview of the remaining differences. Barnier said he had met Britain’s chief negotiator, David Frost, on Tuesday to prepare the next steps.

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.

For weeks, the two sides have been haggling over fishing rights in British waters, ensuring fair competition for companies and ways to solve future disputes.

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.

Johnson, a leader of the 2016 referendum campaign to leave the EU, has repeatedly said any deal must respect Britain’s sovereignty. Von der Leyen does not want to offer too much to London for fear of encouraging other member states to leave, and must also deliver a deal that does not alienate any of the 27.

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Germany’s Europe Minister, Michael Roth, called on Britain to show “political will”.

“Let me be very clear: Our future relationship is based on trust and confidence,” he added. “It’s precisely this confidence that is at stake in our negotiations right now.”

But one major iritant has now been removed with Tuesday’s agreement relating to the implementation of checks, regulations and paperwork regarding the border between Northern Ireland and EU member the Republic of Ireland.

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 Dec. 31 when the rest of the United Kingdom leaves fully.

“Good progress! Will finally provide some certainty on implementation of Brexit Protocol in Northern Ireland. Practical cooperation and flexibility has been agreed to make it as manageable as possible for people and businesses,” Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said on Twitter.

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