UK, EU leaders to discus Brexit, free trade talks

BRUSSELS — The European Union said today the main issues separating the bloc and Britain in their fraught talks on a rudimentary trade agreement following the Brexit divorce are “still completely open” and called for intensified negotiations over the next couple of weeks.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson will have a video conference Saturday to chart the way forward, but the EU leader relied more on hope and perseverance than rational analysis that a deal could be struck.

“Where there is a will, there is a way,” she said in an assessment of the state of play two weeks before an EU summit to specifically address the post-Brexit trade issue.

“We should not forget that we have made progress on many, many different fields. But, of course, the most difficult ones are still completely open,” von der Leyen said.

And German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that Britain’s plans announced this month to breach an international agreement it signed with the EU to regulate trade on the island of Ireland and make sure peace is preserved there was a big blow.

“We’ve suffered a certain setback with the breaching of the agreement we reached on Northern Ireland. I have to say simply: that’s bitter.”

Still, the EU and the U.K. recognized talks had to continue if only because too much was at stake economically for both sides if there would be no deal at the end of the year.

“We want a deal, because we think it is better to have a deal as neighbors — also, on top of these COVID times with devastating impact on the economies, but not at any price,” von der Leyen said of the coronavirus pandemic.

That’s why Saturday’s talks will be so important. The announcement came as their negotiators were winding up another weeklong session of detailed negotiations on issues from fisheries rights to state aid rules that should come in force once a Brexit transition period ends Dec. 31.

Little progress has been made on such a deal since the U.K. left the bloc at the end of January.

Johnson has said he is prepared to walk away from the negotiations if there is no agreement by the time of the next EU summit on Oct. 15. The EU sees a deadline at the end of the month, allowing for two months to get any deal through legislative approval.

U.K. Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick said there were still some “very significant issues” which needed to be resolved if they were to get an agreement.

“There isn’t very much time now so we are urging the EU to show flexibility and pragmatism in these final stages of the talks,” he told the BBC.

“We hope that we can move swiftly now to reach the kind of sensible trading that we would like to see,” Jenrick said.

“Of course, as we have always said, that if that isn’t possible then we are perfectly content to see the transition period end and us to continue to trade on the same sort of arrangements” as many other nations that trade on rules set out by the World Trade Organization.