UK, EU head for supper showdown over Brexit trade deal

The leaders of Britain and the European Union were meeting Wednesday for a dinner that could pave the way to a post-Brexit trade deal — or tip the two sides toward a chaotic economic rupture at the end of the month.

Early morning comments from both sides insisting that it was for the other to compromise only highlighted the difficult task ahead for U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. They have just a few hours over a multi-course meal to unstick negotiations that are deadlocked on key aspects of the future relationship for the EU and Britain.

Johnson’s press secretary, Allegra Stratton, said the prime minister and von der Leyen “both believe that there needs to be some political momentum now.” Johnson’s office said that if the two leaders agree, their chief negotiators — who will both attend Wednesday’s dinner — could resume talks on a final deal.

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But the two sides gave ominously opposing views of the main sticking points — and each insisted the other must move to reach an agreement.

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaves 10 Downing Street to attend the weekly Prime Ministers' Questions session in parliament in London, Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2020. Johnson will fly to Brussels later Wednesday in an attempt to reach a breakthrough on a Brexit trade deal over dinner with Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)

Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaves 10 Downing Street to attend the weekly Prime Ministers’ Questions session in parliament in London, Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2020. Johnson will fly to Brussels later Wednesday in an attempt to reach a breakthrough on a Brexit trade deal over dinner with Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)

“A good deal is still there to be done,” Johnson insisted. But he told lawmakers in the House of Commons that the bloc’s demands that the U.K. continue to adhere to its standards or face retaliation were not “terms that any prime minister of this country should accept.”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said “there is still the chance of an agreement,” but stressed that the EU would not compromise on its core principles. Merkel told the German parliament that the bloc would “take a path without an … agreement if there are conditions from the British side that we can’t accept.”

The U.K. left the EU on Jan. 31 after 47 years of membership but remains within the bloc’s tariff-free single market and customs union until the end of the year. Reaching a trade deal by then would ensure there are no tariffs or quotas on trade in goods on Jan. 1, although there would still be new costs and red tape for businesses.

Failure to secure a trade deal would mean tariffs and other barriers that would hurt both sides, although most economists think the British economy would take a greater hit because the U.K. does almost half of its trade with the bloc.

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Months of trade talks have failed to bridge the gaps on three issues — fishing rights, fair-competition rules, and the governance of future disputes.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen makes a statement on camera regarding Brexit negotiations, after a phone call with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, at EU headquarters in Brussels, Saturday, Dec. 5, 2020. (Julien Warnand)

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen makes a statement on camera regarding Brexit negotiations, after a phone call with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, at EU headquarters in Brussels, Saturday, Dec. 5, 2020. (Julien Warnand)

While both sides want a deal, they have fundamentally different views of what it entails. The EU fears Britain will slash social and environmental standards and pump state money into U.K. industries, becoming a low-regulation economic rival on the bloc’s doorstep — hence the demand for strict “level playing field” guarantees in exchange for access to its markets.

Merkel said “the integrity of the single market must be preserved.”

“We must have a level playing field not just for today, but we must have one for tomorrow or the day after, and to do this we must have agreements on how one can react if the other changes their legal situation,” Merkel said. “Otherwise there ill be unfair competitive conditions that we cannot ask of our companies.”

The U.K. government sees Brexit as about sovereignty and “taking back control” of the country’s laws, borders and waters. It claims the EU is making demands it has not placed on other non-EU countries and is trying to bind Britain to the bloc’s rules indefinitely.

“Our friends in the EU are currently insisting that if they pass a new law in the 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,” Johnson said, calling the bloc’s demands unacceptable.

Pro-European Union membership supporters demonstrate by Parliament Square, with a scaffolded Houses of Parliament and the Elizabeth Tower, known as Big Ben in the background, in London, Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2020. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson will fly to Brussels later Wednesday in an attempt to reach a breakthrough on a Brexit trade deal over dinner with Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

Pro-European Union membership supporters demonstrate by Parliament Square, with a scaffolded Houses of Parliament and the Elizabeth Tower, known as Big Ben in the background, in London, Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2020. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson will fly to Brussels later Wednesday in an attempt to reach a breakthrough on a Brexit trade deal over dinner with Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

Amid the gloom, one area of tension has been resolved. The British government has dropped plans to break international law after reaching an agreement with the EU on rules governing trade with Northern Ireland, the only part of the U.K. that shares a land border with the bloc.

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The Brexit divorce agreement struck by the two sides last year promised there would be no customs checks or other trade barriers along Northern Ireland’s border with EU member Ireland. As the two sides tried to hammer out the details, British government introduced legislation in September giving itself powers to breach the legally binding withdrawal agreement in order to keep goods flowing to Northern Ireland in the event of a “no-deal” Brexit.

Britain claimed the bill was needed as a safety net, but the move infuriated the EU, which saw it as an act of bad faith that could imperil Northern Ireland’s peace settlement.

U.K. Cabinet Minister Michael Gove said resolving the Northern Ireland issue provided a “smoother glide path” towards a broader trade deal with the EU, though the bad feeling generated by the lawbreaking move still lingers.