On eve of UK deadline, trade talks with EU still stalled

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BRUSSELS (AP) — On the eve of a European Union summit which British Prime Minister Boris Johnson had set as a deadline to get a post-Brexit trade agreement between both sides, talks remained in a deep rut over fundamental differences regarding anything from state aid to fisheries.

EU nations are already looking to the end of the month, when they see the ultimate deadline for an agreement if they still want to get it through legal vetting and parliamentary approvals before Jan. 1.

A trade deal for the EU and the recently departed U.K. would have the potential to save hundreds of thousands of jobs and not acerbate the worst economic crisis in decades brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.

Still, despite having fully intertwined economies until Britain officially left the EU on Jan. 31, differences over cooperation remain huge.

In draft summit conclusions obtained by The Associated Press, the 27 leaders will note “with concern that progress on the key issues of interest to the Union is still not sufficient for an agreement.”

Britain also feels some momentum that was generated two weeks ago has failed to produce sufficient results and continues to be baffled that the EU is driving what it sees as an extremely hard bargain. The EU says Britain simply seeks to maintain the advantages of membership it had without the commitment to play by the bloc’s rules.

Johnson should decide by the end of the week whether to pull the plug on the talks, but officials from both sides who are close to the negotiations point to them continuing for a few more weeks.

To push negotiators toward that slim area of possible common ground, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen will have a video call with Johnson later Wednesday. Few expect Johnson to pull the plug on the negotiations this week, and instead commit to talks for a few more weeks.

The EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, is hosting British counterpart David Frost in Brussels a day after EU nations complained that the talks were making far too little progress to clinch a deal in time.

European Council President Charles Michel said in his summit invitation letter that “the coming days are decisive” as EU nations are spurring their businesses on to prepare for a no-deal finale to the Brexit transition.

Britain exited the EU on Jan. 31, but both sides agreed to a gap until the end of the year to try to find a trade deal to make the changeover smooth and make sure the U.K. and the bloc have the best commercial contacts possible.

But talks have been as slow as political relations have become acrimonious. Johnson says the EU must shift its position if it wants a deal, and insists the U.K. is quite prepared to walk away without one.

The EU is counting on the U.K. seeking the unfettered access it wants to the huge and wealthy continental market to make a belated breakthrough possible.

EU nations like France want the access of U.K. companies to the EU market to be very strict, making sure British firms won’t be able to undercut their continental rivals because of minimal regulation and excessive state subsidies.

France is viewed, especially by Britain, as one of the nations most unwilling to compromise, especially on the issue of French boats’ access to British fishing waters.

Since last month, the member states have also become ardent in demanding legal guarantees on governance of any deal after Johnson introduced legislation in September that breaches the Brexit withdrawal agreement he himself signed with the EU only last year.

It left trust in the Johnson government shattered, and the European Parliament, which must approve any deal, has vowed not to approve any trade deal if the U.K. government doesn’t withdraw this legislation. Britain says it will keep the legislation, with the option to use it if necessary.

The EU has said that any agreement will take about two months for legal ratification, translation into European languages and for approval from the European Parliament, making for an effective cutoff date of around Nov. 1.

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Follow all AP stories on the Brexit trade talks at https://apnews.com/Brexit

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