Hopes were rising in London and Brussels on Sunday that a post-Brexit trade deal can be rescued, but there were warnings that the EU and UK remained far apart on key issues and that talks could go to the wire.
Boris Johnson, UK prime minister, and Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission president, agreed in a constructive call on Sunday to go the extra mile in search of a deal, as both sides reported progress in the talks.
But no deadline was set for the conclusion of negotiations, with British officials admitting that they could drag on until Christmas. A deal must be in place before Britain’s transition deal ends on January 1.
We have time on our side to ratify we can go up until Christmas, said one senior British official. EU diplomats confirmed that talks would not be wrapped up in a day or two as the high-wire brinkmanship continued.
Boris Johnson told broadcasters that both sides remained far apart on key issues thought to refer to the so-called level playing field and to fisheries but there was relief in London that the EU position was shifting.
Dominic Raab, UK foreign secretary, said on Sunday before the decision to extend the talks that the EU would have to cross quite a high bar by showing it was willing to compromise to make it worthwhile.
Mr Raab also hinted on the BBC’s Andrew Marr programme that lawyers could pour fudge over a final agreement and that there could be creative contours in the drafting to help a deal over the line.
EU officials acknowledged that there had been progress in the talks, with one describing incremental progress on all fronts, although Mr Johnson warned that no-deal was still the most likely outcome.
Michel Barnier, EU chief negotiator, will brief EU27 ambassadors and MEPs on the state of play on Monday. Talks with David Frost, his UK counterpart, will continue in Brussels on Monday.
British MPs have been put on notice to be ready in the week before Christmas to pass the necessary legislation to enact a deal, while the European Parliament is also ready for an emergency sitting.
The decision to continue with talks beyond Sunday’s deadline came as both sides explored ways of cracking the main sticking point: designing a system to satisfy EU demands for fair business competition.
Mr Johnson and Ms von der Leyen held an uncomfortable meeting in Brussels last week, fuelling the sense of impending failure, but on Sunday the mood between the two was said by EU officials to have been cordial.