British Prime Minister Boris Johnson heads to Brussels on Wednesday for talks with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in a push to avoid a tumultuous Brexit without a trade deal in three weeks’ time.
With growing fears of a chaotic no-deal finale to the five-year Brexit crisis when the United Kingdom finally leaves the EU’s orbit on Dec. 31, the meeting over dinner is being cast as a chance to unlock the stalled trade talks.
A British government source said a deal may not be possible, as did EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier. Ireland also signalled it was pessimistic about the prospects.
“The EU has to move,” Michael Gove, a senior minister in Johnson’s government dealing with Brexit issues, told Times Radio.
While Gove refused to give odds on a deal, he said that often a one-on-one meeting between leaders could result in a breakthrough. He said a compromise could be possible on fishing in British waters – one of the toughest issues so far.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Europe’s most powerful leader, said there was still a chance of a deal but that the integrity of the EU’s market had to be preserved.
Failure to secure a deal would snarl borders, shock financial markets and sow chaos through supply chains across Europe and beyond as the world faces the vast economic cost of the COVID-19 pandemic.
A measure of expected price swings in the pounds known as overnight implied volatility jumped 25% to the highest since late March.
EU chief negotiator Barnier said on Tuesday he believed a ‘no-deal’ split in ties with Britain at the end of the year was now more likely than agreement on a trade pact, EU sources said.
A diplomat and an official in Brussels, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Barnier made the remark at a meeting with the European affairs ministers from the 27 EU states. Barnier added that it was time for the bloc to update its no-deal contingency plans, they said.
Britain said on Tuesday it had clinched a deal with the EU over how to manage the Ireland-Northern Ireland border, and would now drop clauses in draft domestic legislation that would have breached a Brexit withdrawal agreement signed in January.
Gove said the deal on Northern Ireland opened up “a smoother glide path” towards a possible deal. He added that if a deal was not done finance minister Rishi Sunak would take steps to ensure British businesses were competitive.
Gove confirmed he was helping to coordinate the government’s attempt to prepare for the scenario of Brexit without a trade deal during a surge in winter COVID-19 cases.
Irish Prime Minister Micheal Martin said he is “on the pessimistic side” about the chances that Britain and the European Union will reach a consensus in the coming days on a free-trade agreement, the Irish Times reported on Wednesday.