Boris Johnson was warned by Ireland’s foreign minister that the main outstanding issues in Brexit trade talks must be “resolved in principle this week”, with officials in London also confirming a crunch moment in the negotiations.
Simon Coveney said on Sunday this was “move week”, while British officials admitted that after months of phoney deadlines the talks on a future relationship agreement had reached a moment of truth. “We’ve got 10 more days, max,” said one UK official.
The sentiment was echoed on the EU side of the negotiations. “It is crunch time,” said one diplomat, noting upheaval in Downing Street as some of the UK prime minister’s top aides quit last week. “We will see whether Number 10 can put an end to its internal chaos, make up its mind and come up with a sensible approach.”
David Frost, Mr Johnson’s chief Brexit negotiator, arrived in Brussels on Sunday saying that “some progress” on a trade agreement with the EU had been made in recent days but that substantial differences remained and a “no deal” outcome was still possible.
Lord Frost’s former Vote Leave allies in Downing Street, Dominic Cummings and Lee Cain, resigned from their positions advising Mr Johnson last week, prompting some in Brussels to think that the UK prime minister now has more political space to compromise and secure a trade deal.
Lord Frost has told colleagues he was surprised at suggestions he might quit in sympathy with his fellow advisers. Downing Street said it was “total rubbish” that Mr Johnson was ready to soften his negotiating position.
With Britain’s transition period ending on January 1 and with the European Parliament needing to ratify any agreement, both sides have agreed that crucial compromises will have to be made in the coming days.
Mr Coveney told Sky News: “If you want to use sporting parlance, this is move week. We have got to make big progress this week, hopefully we have got to get the big issues resolved in principle this week.”
He also repeated that any trade deal would not be approved by the EU unless Mr Johnson dropped his threat, contained in his internal market bill, to break commitments on Northern Ireland in his withdrawal treaty.
Much drafting has been done on a future relationship treaty between the UK and the EU that one official said would come to about 1,800 pages.
The big outstanding issues in the talks are EU access to British fishing waters and a “level playing field” to ensure fair business competition.
Lord Frost tweeted ahead of his arrival in Brussels: “We are working to get a deal, but the only one that’s possible is one that is compatible with our sovereignty and takes back control of our laws, our trade, and our waters. That has been our consistent position from the start and I will not be changing it.
“There has been some progress in a positive direction in recent days. We also now largely have common draft treaty texts, though significant elements are of course not yet agreed. We will work to build on these and get an overall agreement if we can.”
Environment secretary George Eustice insisted Britain was ready for a no deal outcome to the UK-EU talks even if that could mean tariffs of 10 per cent on car exports and 40 per cent on lamb dispatched overseas.
He told the BBC that sheep farmers, who rely on exports to the EU, could switch to beef production while UK carmakers could change their supply chains so they were less reliant on parts imported from continental Europe.
But former Labour prime minister Gordon Brown said he believed that Mr Johnson had already made up his mind to strike a trade deal with the EU.
He said the election of Joe Biden as US president made it imperative for Britain to strike a deal to avoid destabilising the peace process in Northern Ireland. The victorious Democratic candidate warned Mr Johnson last week not to let Brexit undermine the Good Friday Agreement.
Mr Brown said it was inconceivable that Mr Johnson would wish to enter 2021 “at war” with both the EU and the US. “I think he’s made up his mind already there will be a settlement,” he added.