Last-ditch post-Brexit trade talks resume between EU, UK

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European Union flags flutter in the wind prior to a meeting of Britain's chief negotiator David Frost and EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier at EU headquarters in Brussels, Sunday, Dec. 6, 2020. Well beyond any imaginable deadline and with all three key issues still unresolved, the European Union and the United Kingdom decided to press on with negotiating a trade deal ahead of an ever-closer Jan. 1 cutoff day. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)

BRUSSELS – European Union and British negotiators Sunday entered what is potentially the final attempt to strike a deal over future trade ties, even though “significant differences remain" on three essential points.

With less than four weeks remaining before the Jan. 1 cutoff day, the negotiators might have less than 48 hours to clinch a breakthrough because European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson will assess late Monday if there is any point in continuing.

If there remain major issues with legal oversight of any trade deal and standards of fair play the UK needs to meet to be able to export in the EU, fisheries appears to move toward some sense of compromise.

“The fisheries negotiations are slowly moving toward a landing zone. It no longer is the prime stumbling bloc,” said a diplomat from an EU nation. He didn’t want to be identified because the talks were still ongoing.

While the U.K. left the EU on Jan. 31, it remains within the bloc’s tariff-free single market and customs union through Dec. 31. Reaching a trade deal by then would ensure there are no tariffs and trade quotas on goods exported or imported by the two sides, although there would still be technical costs, partly associated with customs checks and non-tariff barriers on services.

Britain’s main negotiator, David Frost, arrived on a high-speed Eurostar train Sunday and said that “we are going to see what happens," amid an ever gloomier outlook that a breakthrough could be achieved on all outstanding points.

Foreign Minister Simon Coveney of Ireland, which stands to lose most in case of a no-deal exit, told RTE broadcater that “we’re in a difficult place as we try to close it out.”

The new negotiating session was authorized after a phone call between von der Leyen and Johnson on Saturday, where the two leaders noted that fundamental differences between the two sides remain over a “level playing field” — the standards the U.K. must meet to export into the bloc — how future disputes are resolved and fishing rights for EU trawlers in U.K. waters.