EU leader: We want trade deal with UK but not at any price

Refusing to bow to U_K_ insistence that the European Union must make “fundamental” changes, EU Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen says the EU still wants a Brexit trade deal “but not at any price.”

Von der Leyen said less than a hour after British Prime Minister Boris Johnson made his ultimatum that, “as planned, our negotiation team will go to London next week to intensify these negotiations.”

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. AP’s earlier story follows below.

LONDON (AP) — British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Friday that the U.K. must prepare for a no-deal break with the European Union unless there is a “fundamental” change of position from the bloc, as the two sides swapped blame for failing to strike a deal with just weeks until the end-of-year deadline.

Johnson said the EU is refusing to give Britain a trade deal like the one it has with Canada, which the U.K. is seeking.

Johnson was responding to EU leaders, who said at a Brussels summit that the U.K. needs to shift its positions to make an agreement possible.

The U.K. had threatened to walk away from the talks if a deal was not struck by the EU summit that ends Friday.

Johnson didn’t go that far, but ramped up the tension, saying the EU seemed to have given up on a deal. He said Britain would listen if there was “a fundamental change of approach” from Brussels.

“As far as I can see they have abandoned the idea of a free trade deal. … Unless there is a fundamental change of approach we are going to go for the Australia solution,” he said in London.

Australia has no comprehensive trade deal with the EU. Johnson’s Conservative government insists Britain can still thrive under those conditions, which would mean tariffs and other barriers between the U.K. and the EU, its biggest trading partner. But many economists say it would be devastating for many British businesses, which are already struggling with a huge economic hit from the coronavirus pandemic.

There was no immediate response from EU leaders.

Britain officially left the EU on Jan. 31 but remains part of its economic structures until Dec. 31. The two sides have been trying to strike a deal on trade and other relations before then, and say in practice it must be agreed this month if it is to be ratified by year’s end.

Despite Johnson’s intransigent tone, U.K. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said Friday that gaps between the two sides were narrow.

“There is a deal to be done but there needs to be flexibility on both sides,” he told the BBC. “It feels a little bit lacking from the European Union.”

Raab said differences remained on only two issues: EU boats’ access to U.K. fishing waters, and “level playing field” rules to ensure fair economic competition between Britain and the bloc.

“The issues are really narrow now,” Raab said.

Months of talks have ground to a halt on the issues of fishing — highly symbolic for maritime nations on both sides — and rules to ensure common regulatory standards and fair competition. The EU fears the U.K. will gain an unfair advantage by slashing food, workplace and environmental standards and pumping state money into businesses once it is free of the bloc’s rules.

Britain accuses the bloc of seeking to impose demands that it has not placed on other countries it has free trade deals with, such as Canada.

“They want the continued ability to control our legislative freedom, our fisheries, in a way that is obviously unacceptable to an independent country,” Johnson said.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the veteran diplomat, sought to soothe tempers, saying that “we asked Britain to be willing to compromise. This of course means that we too have to make compromises.”

Chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier signalled he expected the talks to continue. “The negotiations aren’t over,” he said. adding that his team would be London-bound for more talks next week and planned to host negotiations in Brussels the week after that. Britain has not publicly agreed to that timetable.

He also insisted that EU negotiators “are prepared to speed up negotiations,” countering Frost who said in a tweet: “Surprised EU is no longer committed to working ‘intensively’ to reach a future partnership.”

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 the bill, which has yet to become law, is needed as an insurance policy in case the EU behaves unreasonably after Brexit.


Raf Casert reported from Brussels.


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