BRUSSELS: Britain´s Prime Minister Boris Johnson and EU chief Ursula von der Leyen agreed Sunday to push on with post-Brexit trade talks despite the passing of a self-imposed deadline.
The pair had said they would decide whether or not an agreement was possible by the end of the weekend but after a cross-Channel crisis call agreed to "go the extra mile".
"We had a useful phone call this morning. We discussed the major unresolved topics," von der Leyen said in a brief televised statement that was also issued jointly by UK officials.
"Our negotiating teams have been working day and night over recent days."
The EU’s Michel Barnier and Britain’s David Frost held talks late on Saturday and early on Sunday and will continue to negotiate in Brussels.
"And despite the exhaustion after almost a year of negotiations, despite the fact that deadlines have been missed over and over we think it is responsible at this point to go the extra mile," the leaders said.
"We have accordingly mandated our negotiators to continue the talks and to see whether an agreement can even at this late stage be reached."
Sunday was the latest in a string of supposedly hard deadlines for the talks but tension is rising with just 19 days left until Britain leaves the EU single market.
On Saturday, Britain took the dramatic step of announcing that naval vessels will patrol its waters from January 1 to exclude European crews from the fishing grounds they have shared, in some cases for centuries.
Brussels´ tone has been less bellicose, and von der Leyen has made it clear that the EU will respect UK sovereignty after the post-Brexit transition period, but neither side is yet ready to compromise on core principles.
Without a trade deal, cross-Channel trade will revert to WTO rules, with tariffs driving up prices and generating paperwork for importers, and the failed negotiation could poison relations between London and Brussels for years to come.
Irish Prime Minister Micheal Martin told the BBC that 97 percent of an agreement has been negotiated and “it seems to me that the remaining three percent should not be beyond the capacity of both sides to bridge”. “The fact that they negotiated into the night is an important sign in itself. Where the dialogue continues, that gives me hope,” he said.
Much of the text of a possible trade deal is said to be ready, but Britain has rejected Brussels´ insistence on a mechanism to allow it to retaliate if UK and EU law diverge in a way that puts continental firms at a competitive disadvantage.
“The defence of the single market is a red line for the European Union. What we have proposed to the United Kingdom respects British sovereignty. It could be the basis for an agreement,” a senior EU source said, echoing an earlier von der Leyen statement.
In London, a government spokesman stressed late on Saturday that Britain was ready to leave the union and handle its own affairs after 47 years of close economic integration and that “as things stand, the offer on the table from the EU remains unacceptable”. “The prime minister will leave no stone unturned in this process, but he is absolutely clear: any agreement must be fair and respect the fundamental position that the UK will be a sovereign nation in three weeks´ time,” the source said.
Downing Street has said the government has mapped out “every single foreseeable scenario” for potential problems after December 31, and “no one needs to worry about our food, medicine or vital supply chains”.
Meanwhile, Boris Johnson said Sunday he still hoped for a post-Brexit trade deal with the European Union but that failure remains the “most likely” outcome.
“I´m afraid we´re still very far apart on some key things but where there´s life there´s hope,” he told reporters. “The most likely thing now is of course we have to get ready for WTO terms.”