The chief EU negotiator on Brexit said at a special meeting of ambassadors that Brussels and London were still close to a breakthrough in trade talks, dismissing earlier reports.
European diplomats familiar with the meeting said that Michel Barnier denied rumors Sunday evening that an agreement on fishing rights had emerged, which had hindered the negotiations from the start.
He is said to have warned that the two sides also remained separate on issues of governance and fair competition for British companies in the European Union – the other two interesting points.
Mr Barnier’s comments to the ambassadors put him on the same page with the British team on the status of the talks. Late last night, a British government source said that “there was no breakthrough in the field of fish” and that “nothing new was achieved in this regard today.”
Diplomats say the chief negotiator gave the impression that the issue of so-called “equal opportunity” for British companies and the European Union would end up becoming the most difficult issue.
Commenting on the meeting, Irish Foreign Minister Simon Covigny told Irish channel RTE that Mr. Barnier gave a “very bleak” and “pessimistic” assessment of the prospects for an agreement.
“Having heard from Michel Barnier this morning, the news is really very downbeat. I would say he is very bleak and apparently very cautious about being able to make progress today.”
“There was news last night about some media outlets that there was a fishing breakthrough. That is not the case at all from what we hear this morning.
“There was no real progress yesterday. This is our understanding and so we have to try to achieve a breakthrough at some point today, before the two Presidents, Chairperson and Prime Minister speak later this evening.”
“Unfortunately, I would like to give more positive news, but for the time being these negotiations appear to be stalled, and the obstacles to progress remain.”
Back in Westminster, Secretary of State James Cleverley insisted that the trade deal was “close” but warned that negotiators might not succeed in time.
“The vast majority of the elements of this agreement have been resolved and we are now hanging on a small number of important areas for which we do not have an agreement,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today program.
The lack of progress over the weekend is bad news for the odds of avoiding a no-deal exit from the single market, which will automatically happen on December 31 if nothing is agreed upon by then.
Boris Johnson and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen are set to speak again this evening by phone to assess whether negotiators have achieved any ground today.
The new deadline for reaching an agreement is widely seen as the EU summit on Thursday and Friday in Brussels, where the 27 leaders will meet and sign an agreement, if it is available.