A Brexit deal must be sealed by Sunday or there will be no deal, Boris Johnson and Ursula von der Leyen agreed after a “lively and frank” three-hour summit that set the stage for a dramatic final act of the negotiations.
Despite nine months of troubled talks, “very large gaps” were said to remain between the UK and EU. The leaders said they should come to a deal or no deal outcome by the end of the weekend, with pressure on both sides to find time for parliamentary ratification.
Downing Street said the meeting in Brussels had been “frank” – a diplomatic expression for a heated conversation. The commission president, Von der Leyen, tweeted: “We had a lively and interesting discussion on the state of play on outstanding issues.
“We understand each other’s positions. They remain far apart. The teams should immediately reconvene to try to resolve these issues. We will come to a decision by the end of the weekend.”
An EU source close to the negotiation said that while the difficulties were real, both sides still believed a deal was possible.
Flanked by his chief negotiator and senior aides, Johnson had told the European commission president and the bloc’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, that he could not accept terms in a treaty that would tie Britain to EU rules.
As he spelled out his position over a three-course meal of scallops, turbot and pavlova in the commission’s Berlaymont headquarters, EU sources said the bloc planned to publish its no-deal contingency plans “very soon indeed” in order to keep planes flying and protect borders in the event of talks collapsing irretrievably.
A senior No 10 source said: “The prime minister and Von der Leyen had a frank discussion about the significant obstacles which remain in the negotiations.
“Very large gaps remain between the two sides and it is still unclear whether these can be bridged. The prime minister and Von der Leyen agreed to further discussions over the next few days between their negotiating teams.
“The prime minister does not want to leave any route to a possible deal untested. The prime minister and Von der Leyen agreed that by Sunday a firm decision should be taken about the future of the talks.”
Earlier in the day EU leaders had told their parliaments the negotiations were on the edge of failure. “At the moment we are on the precipice of a no-deal [Brexit],” Ireland’s taoiseach, Micheál Martin, told the Irish parliament.
Johnson arrived at the commission’s headquarters just after 8pm local time, where he posed for pictures with Von der Leyen before retreating to a meeting room with their chief negotiators for a half-hour discussion. The two teams, joined by further officials, then sat down to a fish dinner.
As Von der Leyen and Johnson met, the commission president warned him over the need to remain Covid-secure, telling him: “Keep [your] distance.”
She added that the prime minister should remove his mask. “Then we have to put it back on,” she said. “You have to put it back on immediately.” “You run a tight ship here, Ursula, and quite right too,” Johnson responded.
The dinner ended after just over three hours. The 27 EU heads of state and government will meet on Thursday, when Von der Leyen is likely to update them on the talks.
Sources said the leaders would not engage in a debate and did not intend to make any decisions on Brexit during the two-day summit.
EU capitals now face a nervous wait for answers from Brussels. In the Bundestag, the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, had said earlier in the day that her government was willing to let the negotiation collapse if Downing Street continued to reject the EU’s approach.
“If there are conditions coming from the British side which we cannot accept, then we will go on our own way without an exit agreement,” she said. “Because one thing is certain: the integrity of the single market has to be maintained.”
The main hurdle is seen by both sides as the EU’s demand for an “evolution” or “ratchet” clause to ensure that as one side upgrades its standards, the other is not able to enjoy a competitive advantage.
Before flying to Brussels from RAF Northolt, Johnson told the Commons that the EU had tabled terms no British prime minister could accept. “Our friends in the EU are currently insisting that if they pass a new law in future with which we in this country do not comply or don’t follow suit, then they want the automatic right to punish us and to retaliate,” he said.
“And secondly, they’re saying the UK should be the only country in the world not to have sovereign control over its fishing waters. I don’t believe that those are terms that any prime minister of this country should accept.”
The description of the EU’s negotiating demands was rejected in Brussels, raising hopes that Johnson was establishing a “straw man” argument to blow away later in favour of a compromise that he can sell to his Brexiter backbenchers. “I don’t recognise that, it doesn’t ring a bell,” said one senior EU diplomat. “I don’t know what he is referring to, let’s put it that way.”
Merkel told German parliamentarians that the EU, with the “evolution” clause, was merely seeking to manage the inevitable divergence in environmental, social and labour standards, which are currently shared.
The UK’s chief negotiator, David Frost, has agreed to non-regression from a common baseline of standards at the end of the transition period.
But EU negotiators want a forum for discussion when the current minimum standards become outdated owing to developments on one side. There would then be arbitration and the potential for one side to hit back with tariffs or other corrective measures if the other drags its feet on agreeing a new “level playing field” of minimum standards. Downing Street fears this will mean an alignment of standards via the back door.
The House of Commons could sit as late as Christmas Eve should it be required to pass a Brexit bill, Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle, said on Wednesday. Under current plans, the Commons will stop sitting on December 21, but he told Sky News that recess could be delayed.