After Last-Ditch Dinner Talks, EU-UK No Closer to a Deal

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, right, welcomes British Prime Minister Boris Johnson prior to a meeting at EU headquarters in Brussels Wednesday. (Olivier Hoslet, Pool via AP)

(CN) — The specter of the United Kingdom and the European Union formally cutting ties at the end of the year without even a bare-bones trade deal grew on Wednesday night after the two sides met in Brussels and failed to carve out much room for compromise.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson went to Brussels to hold discussions with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen over a lengthy three-course dinner. Once the dinner was over, both sides issued gloomy statements saying that big differences remained. They did not speak to reporters after the dinner at the commission’s Berlaymont headquarters.

The dinner menu itself became the subject of much speculation: Scallops were served as a main course (British and French fishermen routinely squabble over access to scallop fishing grounds off the coast of France and fishing rights in U.K. waters is a sticking point in trade talks) and pavlova was the dessert (this meringue-based treat is believed to have originated in Australia and Johnson often talks about a no-deal Brexit as trading with the EU as Australia does, something he calls the “Australia solution.”).

In a statement, von der Leyen called the discussion on the state of play in the negotiations “lively and interesting” but that a deal was not any closer.

“We understand each other’s positions. They remain far apart,” she said. She added that U.K. and EU negotiators will try to resolve the outstanding issues and make a decision by the end of the weekend.

British government sources were quoted by British media as saying “large gaps remain between the two sides and it is still unclear whether these can be bridged.” Downing Street said the talks were frank and set Sunday as a new deadline for a decision on the future of the talks.

EU national leaders are meeting Thursday and Friday for a regular summit. Brexit is not on the agenda, but they are expected to be briefed by von der Leyen, who is the chief executive chosen and elected by EU institutions. 

In recent days, Europe’s two most important leaders, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron, have toughened their language about a trade deal. The EU is expected to lay out its plans Thursday to handle a no-deal Brexit.

Since the House of Commons in London voted to leave the EU nearly one year ago, Johnson’s government and the EU have been locked in negotiations over a trade deal that both sides say they want. 

But the differences are great and Johnson has been unwilling to budge from a hard-core pro-Brexit stance that puts British sovereignty at the forefront. He has the solid backing of a majority in the House of Commons where fellow Conservatives are fervent about the need for the U.K. to not be bound by EU laws, rules and regulations.

On the EU side, European leaders insist that Great Britain must play by the same rules that the EU does if it wants to have unfettered access to the EU’s single market. Fundamentally, EU leaders are concerned that unless it gets the U.K. to agree to abide by EU laws, standards and rules, British companies could undercut EU ones and give the U.K. an unfair advantage.

This is now the major stumbling block between the two sides and unless a trade deal can be reached before the end of the year, customs checks and tariffs could be imposed between the U.K. and the EU. 

One important exception to that is Northern Ireland, where a separate deal has been worked out to make sure the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland remains free of customs checks and tariffs. That was done to avoid the possibility of reigniting sectarian conflict there.

A bitter no-deal divorce is viewed by many as a potentially disastrous scenario for Europe and the U.K., though the U.K. risks getting hit much harder. Already, Britain’s economy has been damaged by Brexit and it could suffer even more if trade barriers go up in the EU, its largest trading partner.

But Johnson and his fellow Brexiteers have for months downplayed the risk of a no-deal Brexit and insisted the U.K. will prosper outside of the EU’s regime. The Tories believe that the U.K. can flourish by engaging in new trade deals around the world. They also want out of the EU so that Britain doesn’t have to follow EU laws, rules and regulations. 

In winning the premiership, Johnson said Britain needed to “take back control.” However, another major factor in Brits voting for Brexit was the desire to limit immigration into the country by both EU nationals and non-EU nationals.

Wednesday’s dinner was described as a potentially major moment for Johnson to win some wiggle room in the negotiations, but if that was his strategy it appeared to have fallen flat. EU leaders have shown a lot of unity in their stance over the U.K. negotiations and appear ready to punish the U.K. for the way it has handled Brexit.

Before Johnson, the U.K. was on the verge of signing a deal that would have kept Britain closely aligned to the EU. But that deal was rejected by a deeply divided House of Commons and led to the downfall of former Prime Minister Theresa May. Pro-Brexit Tories elected Johnson to replace her and since his arrival in Downing Street the tone between the U.K. and EU has hardened.

Despite the harsh rhetoric and red lines, many political analysts and financial experts have said for months that ultimately a trade deal would be reached. But more recently, there is a growing sense that the two sides may indeed not be able to reach a deal before the Jan. 1 deadline.

Without a deal, the two sides would fall back on World Trade Organization terms, though negotiations would likely continue to find more agreeable trading terms and iron out differences.

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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