LONDON/DUBLIN - Britain and the European Union will make a last-ditch attempt to strike a post-Brexit trade deal this week, with probably just days left for negotiators to avert a chaotic parting of ways at the end of the year.
Ireland's prime minister, whose country would face more economic pain than any of the other 26 EU member states in the case of a "no-deal Brexit," cautioned against over-optimism, putting the chances of an agreement at 50-50.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen spoke over the weekend to get their teams back to the negotiating table after talks stalled on three thorny issues.
They are to speak again Monday evening in the hope that, by then, stubborn differences will have narrowed over issues such as fishing rights in United Kingdom waters, fair competition and ways to solve future disputes.
The Guardian newspaper reported after talks resumed Sunday that there had been "a major breakthrough" on the rights of European fleets to fish in UK waters, leaving only issues such as how closely Britain should hew to EU environmental, social and labor standards over time to ensure “a level playing field,” a trade policy term ensuring that companies in both Britain and the EU play by the same rules.
However, a British government source said there had been no breakthrough on fishing rights Sunday.
EU officials did not immediately comment on the report.
Talks on 'knife edge'
Irish Prime Minister Micheal Martin was not optimistic.
"My sense, having spoken to some of the key principals here, is that it is a very challenging issue to resolve, particularly around the level playing field. … Things are on a knife edge here and it is serious," he told national broadcaster RTE.
Since Britain formally left the EU on January 31, negotiators have missed several deadlines for a deal with the world's largest trading bloc before a “status quo transition period” – in which nothing has changed for Britain - ends December 31.
EU negotiator Michel Barnier will brief EU countries' ambassadors to Brussels on the state of play early Monday and talks are expected to continue through the day ahead of another check-in by Johnson and von der Leyen.
If there is no deal, a five-year Brexit divorce will end messily just as Britain and its former EU partners grapple with the severe economic cost of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Back-up vaccine plan
Mairead McGuinness, Ireland's commissioner on the European Commission, said even if negotiators fail to reach an accord, the two sides will still have to discuss their future relationship in the new year.
"So it doesn't go away. There has to be an agreement, there has to be a settlement," she told the Newstalk Radio podcast.
Even with a deal, there will be major disruption to the movement of goods and people. Starting on New Year's Day, Britain will sit outside the EU's single market and customs union.
There will be more elaborate checks at borders, leading to delays in supplies affecting a range of industries, particularly those that rely on just-in-time deliveries.
The Observer newspaper reported that, under UK government contingency plans, tens of millions of COVID-19 vaccine doses could be flown from Belgium by military aircraft to avoid delays at ports caused by Brexit.
The British government declined to comment on the report, but George Eustice, secretary of environment, food and rural affairs, told Sky News the end of the UK's transition period would not disrupt vaccine supplies.