British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen have decided on Sunday as a deadline for a decision over their severely jammed trade talks.
In a statement sent to reporters minutes after Johnson was pictured leaving the EU Commission’s headquarters in Brussels, a senior Number 10 source said the pair had a “frank discussion” but significant obstacles remain in the negotiations.
“Very large gaps remain between the two sides and it is still unclear whether these can be bridged,” the source said.
The two leaders “agreed to further discussions over the next few days between their negotiating teams. The PM does not want to leave any route to a possible deal untested.”
By Sunday “a firm decision” about the future of the talks should be taken, the statement continued.
Shortly afterwards, von der Leyen said in a statement the pair had a “lively and interesting discussion”, adding: “We gained a clear understanding of each others’ positions. They remain far apart.”
The duo spent three hours discussing the British government and the bloc’s issues surrounding the crunch trade talks while dining on a three-course meal.
Britain and the European Union are running out of time to reach an agreement that would cover terms of trade, but also police and justice cooperation and social security arrangements, to name a few issues.
Britain left the the bloc formally at the end of January, but is still in the EU single market until December 31.
If there is no deal in place by this deadline, the harshest of tariffs and cumbersome custom checks would be reimposed, wreaking economic havoc.
As well as striking a deal, time is needed to ratify any agreement.
Ahead of the dinner, Johnson tweeted a photograph of himself boarding a plane with a red briefcase, along with a caption saying he believes there is still hope for a deal with Brussels.
In his tweet, Johnson wrote: “A good deal is still there to be done. But whether we agree trading arrangements resembling those of Australia or Canada, the United Kingdom will prosper mightily as an independent nation.”
Canada has a negotiated trade deal with the EU, while Australia trades mainly on minimalist World Trade Organization rules.
Once Johnson arrived at European Commission headquarters at 7 pm CET (1800 GMT), the pair posed for photographs, firstly observing social distancing before taking their masks off briefly.
Johnson then complimented von der Leyen on “running a tight ship” after she told him to put his mask back on shortly before the photo call ended.
Earlier in the day, during the weekly Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons, Johnson told lawmakers he also was not prepared to bow to the bloc’s demands.
“Our friends in the EU are currently insisting that if they pass a new law in the future with which we in this country do not comply or don’t follow suit, then they want the automatic right to punish us and to retaliate,” he said.
“Secondly, they are saying that the UK should be the only country in the world not to have sovereign control over its fishing waters.
“I don’t believe that those are terms that any prime minister of this country should accept.”
Progress appeared to be made on Tuesday after the British government agreed to remove controversial clauses of a bill which had jeopardized a post-Brexit deal with the European Union.
At dinner, von der Leyen and Johnson dined on pumpkin soup and scallops, followed by steamed turbot, mashed potatoes with wasabi and vegetables and a pavlova with exotic fruit and coconut sorbet.
Scallops have previously been a bone of contention with British fishermen and French boats in 2012.
A row broke out between the two countries when the British were dredging for scallops in an area west of Le Havre, just off the coast of Normandy in France, when seamen began “throwing rocks” from French boats, according to reports.
It is unclear how the matter ended up being resolved.
The meal between Johnson and von der Leyen also appeared topical as it came after the pair said trade agreement negotiations had stalled on Monday over issues surrounding governance, fisheries and finding a way to create a level playing field for competing businesses.