Boris Johnson. Picture: REUTERS/PHIL NOBLE
Boris Johnson. Picture: REUTERS/PHIL NOBLE

London — UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson will intervene in the Brexit negotiations for the first time since June, when he holds talks on Saturday with European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, in an attempt to unlock a deal.

The prime minister and the EU chief will discuss how the two sides can get to an agreement on their future trade and security partnership and what compromises each is willing to make — a move seen by officials close to the negotiations as a positive step forward that could allow for more intensive talks in coming days.

While the final scheduled round of negotiations is set to end on Friday after making only limited progress, officials said the antagonism that blighted earlier talks has dissipated in recent weeks and both sides are intent on getting a deal. They have made some headway on long-standing stumbling blocks, and officials believe they are now in a position to enable Johnson and Von der Leyen to make a final push.

But they are not there yet, and time is fast running out.

To succeed, Johnson and Von der Leyen will have to convince each other they are prepared to make a final leap involving difficult compromises on both sides. If they can, the matter will go back to the negotiating table to nail down the details.

The pound erased losses to rise as much as 0.5% to $1.2954 as of 9.44am in London on hopes that Johnson and Von der Leyen’s call may spur a breakthrough.

The EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, met his British counterpart, David Frost, on Friday as the formal negotiations came to an end. Barnier will meet German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin Monday to discuss the state of play.

Some progress was made this week on two of the biggest obstacles to a deal: the UK’s state-aid policy and the measures needed to enforce any agreement, officials said. But the two sides are still at loggerheads over what access EU fishing boats will have to UK waters, something that could yet scupper an overall deal.

There is still “a lot to do”, UK secretary for local government Robert Jenrick said Friday. He reiterated that the government was prepared to move on without an agreement if necessary after December 31.

“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,” Jenrick told BBC Radio 4. “There are still some very significant issues to be resolved.”

In Brussels, officials are hoping that Johnson’s intervention will have the same effect as his call with Von der Leyen in June when he resuscitated the negotiations by leaving EU chiefs in no doubt that a deal was his preferred option and that he understood what compromises were needed.

Johnson has said he wants a deal by October 16, which would mean intensive joint drafting work — the so-called tunnel —would need to begin immediately. The EU is more relaxed and is willing to allow talks to continue for at least another month.

“The EU is willing to close a deal,” Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte told reporters in Brussels on Thursday. “It helps if it is done before the end of the year, but I’m not going to commit myself to a date — the sooner the better,” he said.

If the two sides fail to reach a trade agreement by year-end, when Britain leaves the EU’s single market and customs union, millions of consumers and business will suffer the cost and disruption of tariffs and quotas and relations between the two sides could be poisoned for a generation.

Bloomberg

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