Last-ditch Brexit trade negotiations are restarting again on Monday, but will be carried out online after one of the EU negotiating team last week tested positive for the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus.
Top EU negotiator Michel Barnier warned that “time is short”, as he announced talks were starting again with his British counterpart David Frost.
“After technical discussions this weekend, negotiations continue online today with David Frost and our teams,” wrote Barnier on Twitter. “Time is short. Fundamental divergences still remain, but we are continuing to work hard for a deal.”
With just days left to thrash out a Brexit trade deal, in-person talks were suspended at the end of last week.
In just six weeks the UK will sever ties with the trading bloc, regardless of whether a deal has been struck or not.
One of the key sticking points is fishing rights: politically symbolic to the British, and also to the French.
The Sun newspaper reported at the weekend that the negotiators were looking at a clause that would allow a renegotiation of any new fishing arrangement in several years’ time.
Reuters also cites an EU diplomat and other unnamed sources as confirming that such an idea was under discussion.
The long-running talks have already left several broken deadlines in their wake, with both sides trying to avoid the “no-deal” scenario at midnight on Dec. 31, but unable to break the impasse over fishing rights and “level playing field” on access.
Finland’s European affairs minister, Tytti Tuppurainen, told Reuters on Nov. 19 that talks are at “a critical stage” but can still yield a “comprehensive and balanced” deal.
“The time pressure is huge, and we all realise that time is running out,” she said.
Standing in the way of a deal are three persistent issues: the largely symbolic fishing rights; an economic “level playing field” between companies without either bloc being able to put their finger on the scales; and agreeing on how to settle trade disputes.
UK negotiators are demanding that the deal must respect the sovereignty that many Brexit voters felt was undermined by EU membership. However, the EU is unwilling to set up a deal too similar to deals with far-flung nations such as Canada, saying that the proximity of the UK brings different dynamics into play.
Last week, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said once again that he was “confident [the UK] will prosper” if no deal is struck, as Health Minister Matt Hancock said the government was sticking to its “red lines”.
Reuters contributed to this report