Boris Johnson’s dinner with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has ended – with a senior Number 10 source warning “very large gaps remain” between the UK and the EU on a Brexit trade deal.
“A frank discussion” was had about the “significant obstacles” that remain in the negotiations – and the source said “it is still unclear whether these can be bridged”.
Mr Johnson and Mrs von der Leyen have agreed to further discussions over the coming days between their negotiating teams, and the prime minister “does not want to leave any route to a possible deal untested”.
Both leaders have agreed that a firm decision about the future of the talks should be taken by Sunday.
In a statement following the three-hour meal, Mrs von der Leyen added: “We had a lively and interesting discussion on the state of play across the list of outstanding issues. We gained a clear understanding of each others’ positions. They remain far apart.
“We agreed that the teams should immediately reconvene to try to resolve these essential issues.”
Sky’s Europe correspondent Adam Parsons has said that, up to this point, deadlines haven’t been set in the Brexit talks – despite the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, coming under pressure so the trading bloc can prepare for a no-deal exit.
He added: “I suspect this deadline may not be elastic, it may be there for good.”
The prime minister had landed in Brussels just before 6pm on Wednesday night on his first visit to the Belgian capital since his landslide election win last winter.
Mr Johnson and Mrs von der Leyen agreed to hold emergency talks in an attempt to break the deadlock in trade deal negotiations.
Despite discussions going on for 10 months, three sticking points remain with only a matter of weeks until the end of the transition period: fishing, fair competition guarantees and how any future disputes should be settled.
The transition period is the arrangement the UK has been in since Brexit happened.
It meant that while the country has formally left the EU and ceased to have any representatives in the European Parliament, it has still followed many of the bloc’s rules.
This was intended to limit disruption to businesses, which would then only have to make a major adjustment to new regulations once – giving negotiators time to agree what the new trading relationship should look like.
But a deal has still proved elusive.
Mr Johnson is facing twin pressures from those in his own party who believe no-deal would have a severe impact on the economy, and those who believe no agreement would leave the UK better off.
Rachel Reeves, the shadow chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, said: “The prime minister promised an oven ready deal.
“He needs to get it done so we can focus on what matters to the British people: securing our economy, protecting our NHS and rebuilding our country.”
Meanwhile, the SNP’s leader in Westminster, Ian Blackford, warned: “A no deal would be a massive failure of diplomacy and leadership which @BorisJohnson has to take ownership of.
“On top of the health & economic impact of covid this is self induced self harm.
“Disruption to trade, tariffs, higher prices and lost jobs is never a price worth paying.”