THE Brexit deadline has been extended, with both sides agreeing to “go the extra mile” in a bid to avoid the UK crashing out of the EU without a trade agreement in place in just 18 days.
But while European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen sounded cautiously upbeat after the agreement to push back Sunday’s deadline, Boris Johnson was notably dour, saying the two sides remained “very far apart”.
He said a No-Deal Brexit was “the most likely thing now”.
Johnson and von der Leyen spoke for around 20 minutes yesterday, following intense negotiations between their teams on Saturday night.
In a statement following the call, the president said: “Our negotiating teams have been working day and night over recent days.
“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.”
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Johnson later told reporters: “We’re going to continue to try and we’re going to try with all our hearts and be as creative as we possibly can, but what we can’t do is compromise on that fundamental nature of what Brexit is all about which is us being able to control our laws, control our fisheries, it’s very, very simple.
“I think our friends get it, and we remain willing to talk and will continue to do so.“But in the meantime let’s get ready for the WTO option, and that’s what I told the Cabinet.”
He added: “As things stand, and this was basically what Ursula and I agreed, we are still very far apart on some key things. But where there is life there is hope. “The UK certainly won’t be walking away from talks, I think people would expect us to go the extra mile.”
He said that he had offered once again to talk directly to European leaders, including the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, and France’s president, Emmanuel Macron. However, that, again, had been rebuffed by Brussels, who insist the British negotiate with the bloc as a whole.
Johnson said: “I repeated my offer. If it’s necessary to talk to other capitals then I’m very happy to do that. The commission is very determined to keep the negotiations on the way that they’ve been done between us and the commission”.
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He added that a Brexit on World Trade Organisation terms is “the most likely thing now”.
“We have made huge preparations for this. We’ve got ready. Either way, whatever happens, the UK will do very very well,” he said.
The key differences remain on fisheries and regulatory alignment – the so-called level playing field.
Downing Street objects to EU demands for a “ratchet” clause in any agreement, that would ensure that both the UK and Europe share a minimum baseline of environmental, social and labour standards.
It would mean that as they evolve in one, they should progress in the other. However, if one side chooses not to increase standards, it could lead to tariffs.
Johnson said: “We are always happy to talk and make progress where we can. I do think there is a deal to be done if our partners want to do it but we remain very far apart on these key issues.
“The UK can’t be locked into the EU’s regulatory orbit and we’ve obviously got to take back control of our fisheries.”
Johnson added: “If Ursula is optimistic then that’s great. As far as I can see there are some serious and very difficult issues that separate the UK from the EU.
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“The best thing to do for everybody is to follow up all the work that’s been done over the last four and a half years and get ready to trade on WTO terms. There is a clarity and simplicity in that approach that has its own advantages.
“The UK should continue to try. I think that’s what the people of this country want me to do. We are going to continue to try and we’re going to try with all our hearts.
“We’ll be as creative as we possibly can.”
Kirsty Hughes from the Scottish Centre on European Relations was optimistic, partly because of Johnson’s past history of talking tough: “Looks positive for a potential deal.
Boris Johnson’s track record in threats he doesn’t follow through on (remember ‘die in a ditch’), aka cowardice, always a source of hope.”