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The Brexit deal breakthrough came amid mounting fears of a potentially catastrophic scenario, in which Britain leaves the bloc in March with no deal at all

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Johnson, EU chief to hold emergency call as Brexit talks paused

Brussels, Belgium, Dec 4 – British and European negotiators broke off their talks on a post-Brexit trade deal without agreement Friday and handed off the task of clearing the logjam to Prime Minister Boris Johnson and EU chief Ursula von der Leyen.

The leaders will hold a telephone call on Saturday after their envoys Michel Barnier and David Frost broke up after an arduous week of day and night meetings without a breakthrough.

“We agreed today that the conditions for an agreement are not met, due to significant divergences on level playing field, governance and fisheries,” the EU’s Barnier and UK’s Frost said, in a tweeted joint statement.

“We agreed to pause the talks in order to brief our principals on the state of play of the negotiations. President Von der Leyen and Prime Minister Johnson will discuss the state of play tomorrow afternoon,” they said.

Barnier was expected to leave London, and the leaders’ call will take place late on Saturday afternoon.

The pause to talks that have dragged on for eight months came despite a tight deadline, with Britain due to leave the EU single market on December 31 with or without a follow-on trade agreement.

A deal is needed to avoid deep disruptions to both economies — but especially Britain’s — that have already been brought low by the coronavirus pandemic.

Despite the tight timetable, on Friday France threatened to veto any deal that fails short of their demands on ensuring fair trade and access to UK fishing waters.

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Last-minute debates were also taken up by haggling over an enforcement mechanism to govern any deal.

Boris Johnson and Ursula von der Leyen in London back in January. The Covid pandemic means Saturday’s talks can’t be face to face © AFP / Tolga AKMEN

“If there’s a deal that isn’t a good one, we’d oppose it,” France’s minister for European affairs Clement Beaune told Europe 1 radio, adding: “Every country has the right to veto”.

A European diplomat told AFP that Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain and Denmark share France’s concerns that in the rush to conclude a deal, Barnier will give too much ground on rules to maintain fair competition.

An anti-Brexit protester in London, where negotiations are going down to the wire © AFP / Tolga Akmen

Britain’s nearest neighbours suspect Germany and the European Commission are too keen to agree a deal to avoid damaging economic fallout.

“The Union has made the necessary gestures to reach a compromise. It is up to the British to make a move,” said French foreign ministry spokeswoman Agnes von der Muhll.

– ‘Time in very short supply’ –

Germany currently holds the EU’s rotating presidency and is also the bloc’s biggest economy and most influential member.

Asked about the state of the talks, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman said Europe “is ready to reach an agreement with Great Britain, but not at any price”.

French Prime Minister Jean Castex (C) visited fishermen on Thursday, underscoring the sector’s importance in Brexit talks © POOL/AFP / Christophe PETIT TESSON

Thus far, the European capitals have remained united behind Barnier, who has been battling Frost as Johnson faces his own choice about whether to compromise.

Johnson’s official spokesman told reporters: “What is certain is that we will not be able to agree a deal that does not respect our fundamental principles on sovereignty and taking back control.”

In a display of pressure on Johnson, veteran Brexit campaigner and former British MEP Nigel Farage said the outcome was now up to the leaders.

“This really is Boris Johnson’s moment of truth,” Farage tweeted.

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– ‘Complicated’ –

The need for a quick deal was in large part dictated by the European Parliament, which will need to see the text within days if it is to properly examine it in time to ratify it by the end of the year.

Comparisons of the population, GDP and surface area of the 27-member European Union and the United Kingdom © AFP/File

European leaders will also want to see what Barnier is planning at their summit on December 10.

The host of next week’s summit, European Council president Charles Michel, hailed Barnier’s work and urged unity “until the last minute, the last second of the procedure”.

Whatever the outcome, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte warned businesses to be ready for what is coming in less than a month’s time.

“Even with an agreement it will be more complicated. And without an agreement, it will be even more complicated,” Rutte told reporters in The Hague.

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