A Brexit trade deal between Britain and the EU looked to be hanging in the balance on Saturday(12) after gloomy assessments from leaders on both sides of the Channel, with just hours left before last-gasp talks conclude.
Prime minister Boris Johnson and European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen have given their negotiators until Sunday(13) before a decision is made on whether to keep talking or give up.
The mood worsened after von der Leyen told EU leaders at a marathon Brussels summit there were “low expectations” and the “probability of a no-deal is higher than of a deal”.
Ireland and Germany tried to raise spirits, agreeing that a pact was “difficult but still possible”.
But Johnson said it was looking “very, very likely” that Britain would end up dealing with its biggest single trading partner on World Trade Organization (WTO) terms from the New Year.
“If there’s a big offer, a big change in what they (the EU) are saying then I must say that I’ve yet to see it,” he told reporters.
The comments did nothing to inspire confidence in the British pound, which extended its losses on currency markets, dropping more than one percent against the dollar.
UK chief negotiator David Frost and his EU counterpart Michel Barnier are trying to carve out a deal by Sunday, with just three weeks left until the end of a transition period following Britain’s departure from the bloc in January.
Whatever happens, Britain will leave the EU single market and customs union, leading to the re-introduction of border checks for the first time in decades.
Logjams at the Felixstowe container port in eastern England and elsewhere have already raised fears of more to come, and delays in deliveries to shops, businesses and industry.
But Johnson’s spokesman said they were mainly caused by a “global spike” in demand for consumer goods and the effect of the coronavirus outbreak on shipping patterns and container capacity.
Brexit trade talks have been deadlocked over the extent of EU access to British fishing grounds and rules governing fair competition.
An EU official refused to rule out a last-minute “turnaround” for a deal, even after the bloc published “no-deal” contingency planning in what was seen as a warning shot to Britain.
Johnson again said fishing and the so-called level playing field were key issues, in particular a “ratchet clause” that would bind Britain to match any future EU legislation.
In the event of no-deal Brexit, the Royal Navy is ready to deploy four armed patrol ships as a “last resort” to protect Britain’s fishing waters, the defence ministry confirmed to local media.
Johnson won a snap election a year ago on Saturday with the promise of an “oven-ready” Brexit deal that would break years of political deadlock since Britain voted in 2016 to exit the EU.
His assessment that Britain would “prosper mightily” on WTO rules with the EU — what he calls “Australia terms” — has not been universally welcomed.
Australia’s former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull warned Johnson: “Be careful what you wish for.”
“Australia’s relationship with the EU is not one from a trade point of view that I think Britain would want, frankly,” he said.
The EU is Britain’s biggest trading partner. Australia in comparison is the EU’s 19th-largest trading partner.