Brussels — A round of intensified Brexit talks ended on Thursday with both sides warning of remaining big differences but they committed to more negotiations next week in London.
The four days of meetings in Brussels were the first held face-to-face since the coronavirus shutdown, with hopes high that progress would be made.
“Our goal was to get negotiations successfully and quickly on a trajectory to reach an agreement,” EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier said in a statement.
“However, after four days of discussions, serious divergences remain,” he said.
But the former French minister added: “We continue to believe that an agreement is possible and in everyone's interest.”
Britain's chief negotiator David Frost mirrored Barnier's statement, warning that “significant differences” remain with the EU. “We remain committed to working hard to find an early understanding on the principles underlying an agreement,” he said.
The talks in July are being held in a more limited format than earlier rounds, in hopes that a face-to-face encounter can deliver a breakthrough.
Signalling a willingness not to disrupt the talks, Barnier and Frost co-ordinated the release of their statements and no meetings with the journalists were planned.
Britain left the EU on January 30 and a post-Brexit transition period during which it still benefits from de facto EU membership comes to an end on December 31.
Without a new agreement, the two sides would see ties reduced to minimum standards set by the World Trade Organisation with high tariffs, quotas and serious disruptions to business.
Big deal vs small
London is pushing hard to agree on the broad outlines of the trade deal this summer to give businesses clarity well before the end of 2020.
The EU is less pressed for time and believes that necessary ratification by the European parliament and other member states would require a deal to be done by late October.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Wednesday said the EU must prepare for the possibility that the talks could fail.
Her unusually hard stance came as Germany took over the EU's rotating presidency in which achieving a deal is a priority.
Over the next weeks, Barnier and Frost are hoping to unknot some of the most contentious issues that have not changed since talks began in March.
These include guarantees of fair competition demanded by the EU in fiscal, social or environmental matters to avoid the emergence of a low-regulation economy on Europe's doorstep.
Other sore points are the role for the EU Court of Justice, access to British waters for European fishermen, and the agreement's actual form.
The Europeans want a broad deal covering all areas of the relationship that should be negotiated in parallel, while London says a simple trade agreement will do for now.
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