Boris Johnson Says Brexit Trade Talks in ‘Serious Situation’

December 17, 2020 Updated: December 17, 2020

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said late Thursday that talks on post-Brexit trade were now in a “serious situation,” and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen admitted that bridging the remaining differences would be “very challenging.”

The two leaders made the comments after talking on the phone about the state of play in the bilateral negotiations.

“The Prime Minister underlined that the negotiations were now in a serious situation. Time was very short and it now looked very likely that agreement would not be reached unless the EU position changed substantially,” the British government said in a statement.

Johnson said the UK was “making every effort to accommodate reasonable EU requests” on fair competition rules, which the EU insists are indispensable to maintaining a “level playing field” between businesses of the two sides, but “some fundamental areas remained difficult” despite the gap narrowing.

On fisheries, Johnson stressed that the UK “could not accept a situation where it was the only sovereign country in the world not to be able to control access to its own waters for an extended period and to be faced with fisheries quotas which hugely disadvantaged its own industry.”

He said the EU’s position was not reasonable and needed to shift “significantly” if a deal were to be struck.

For her part, von der Leyen said that despite progress, “big differences” remain, particularly on fisheries.

“Bridging them will be very challenging,” she wrote on Twitter after talking to Johnson.

Von der Leyen said last Friday that the EU understands the UK’s desire to control its waters, but the UK must “understand the legitimate expectations of EU fishing fleets built on decades, and sometimes centuries, of access.”

Johnson said on Thursday that if no agreement could be reached, the UK and the EU would “part as friends, with the UK trading with the EU on Australian-style terms”—a euphemism the British government uses to refer to a no-deal Brexit, as Australia does not yet have a free trade agreement with the EU and trades with the bloc under World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules.

The leaders agreed to remain in close contact, and the negotiations will continue on Friday.