Ursula von der Leyen on Wednesday warned it remained impossible to predict whether the UK would have a trade deal with Brussels, as frustration mounted on the EU side at the lack of progress in virtual talks this week.
In an address to MEPs, the European Commission president confirmed “genuine progress” had been made on a “number of important questions” in negotiations with the UK, but there were still open issues “that can make the difference between deal or no deal”.
“These are decisive days for our negotiations with the UK but frankly I cannot tell you today if in the end there will be a deal,” Ms von der Leyen said. “With very little time ahead of us, we will do all in our power to reach an agreement, we are ready to be creative.”
Her comments came as EU negotiators expressed mounting frustration over the lack of progress in talks with the UK this week — negotiations that have been taking place virtually after an EU official tested positive last week for Covid-19.
Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, “is frustrated”, said one EU official, adding that the negotiations were like “talking to people who don’t care about having a deal”.
The two sides are planning for physical talks to resume in London later this week, but that will depend on Mr Barnier and other senior members of the EU team testing negative for Covid-19 on Thursday.
An EU official said Mr Barnier had told his UK counterpart David Frost this week that there was little point in the EU side making the trip to the UK capital if there was no sign of movement in the talks.
In London, some officials believe Boris Johnson, prime minister, will have to intervene to break the political logjam and that Lord Frost’s uncompromising defence of “national sovereignty” had left the talks in stalemate.
But allies of Mr Johnson insisted there was “no drama” or any sign that talks were about to break down. The prime minister is expected to speak soon to Ms von der Leyen, but no date has yet been set.
The negotiations are increasingly focused on the core sticking points of EU access to Britain fishing waters, EU insistence on “level playing field” guarantees to protect companies from unfair competition, and matters of governance of the trade treaty.
Particular frustrations on the EU side include that talks this week on the level playing field have made little progress. Discussions over how to ensure both sides’ environmental and labour laws evolve in roughly similar ways over time have been among the most difficult.
An EU official also said talks on the legal structure of the deal had gone backwards.
Time is growing short for an agreement to be ratified before the end of the year, when Britain’s transition period expires.
MEPs have indicated that the European Parliament could push its ratification vote to the end of December if needed to create more time for talks. But EU officials said even that timetable would come under strain if a deal was not found by early next week at the absolute latest.
According to an internal EU parliament document, seen by the FT, the assembly is weighing holding additional plenary sessions on December 22-23 or December 27-28 to debate and vote on a trade deal.
Ms von der Leyen on Wednesday said a central issue in the talks was how to build sufficiently robust safeguards and enforcement mechanisms into the agreement to make sure Britain could be made to stick to its word.
Referring to moves by Mr Johnson to override parts of last year’s Brexit divorce deal through the UK’s controversial internal markets legislation, Ms von der Leyen said “a strong governance system is essential to ensure that what has been agreed is actually done”.
Mr Johnson’s decision to challenge parts of last year’s deal on Northern Ireland has prompted warnings from US president-elect Joe Biden.
Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, Mr Biden stressed that the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland must remain invisible.
“The idea of having a border north and south once again being closed is just not right,” Mr Biden said. “We’ve just got to keep the border open.”
Get alerts on Brexit when a new story is published