EU-UK trade pact still possible as departure date nears

    442

    BRUSSELS/LONDON- The European Union’s Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, said on Monday that sealing a new pact with Britain was still possible as the date for the country’s departure from the bloc edged nearer.

    But a diplomat in Brussels said the chance remained that the the tortuous trade talks could collapse.

    Despite missing multiple deadlines, Britain and the EU agreed on Sunday to “go the extra mile” to try to break deadlocks on access to UK fishing waters for EU trawlers and corporate fair play rules in order to avert a turbulent split in trading ties at the end of the month.

    “We are going to give every chance to this agreement… which is still possible,” Barnier told reporters on arriving to update envoys from the 27 EU countries in Brussels on the talks. “A good, balanced agreement.”

    “Two conditions aren’t met yet. Free and fair competition… and an agreement which guarantees reciprocal access to markets and waters. And it’s on these points that we haven’t found the right balance with the British. So we keep working,” he added.

    The estranged allies are racing to seal a new partnership deal to carry on trading freely and govern ties from energy to transport beyond Dec. 31, when Britain leaves the EU’s single market and customs union after Brexit.

    Senior EU diplomats, who spoke under condition of anonymity after taking part in Barnier’s closed-door briefing, said the negotiator relayed some limited progress on how to settle any future trade disputes but was “guarded” on prospects for a deal.

    The sides remained at odds over state aid provisions and have moved further apart again on fisheries, with the EU rejecting UK’s proposal for a three-year transition period from 2021 on access to British waters, they said.

    “Patient still alive…but keep the undertaker on speed dial,” said one of the diplomats of how the talks were going.

    Britons voted to leave the world’s largest trading bloc in a national referendum in 2016, and pro-Brexit politicians had claimed that reaching a deal would be easy.

    While gaps have been narrowing after seven months of tortuous talks, it was not clear if Britain and the EU would be able to clinch an agreement with less than three weeks left, or face economic damage from a no-deal from Jan.1.

    That would damage an estimated trillion dollars worth of annual trade, send shockwaves through markets, snarl borders and sow chaos in supply chains across Europe just as the continent struggles with economic havoc wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic.