EU leaders stress unity as they welcome Brexit trade talks extension

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Commentators also rue ‘new heights of hysteria and habitual xenophobia’ in British tabloids

01:32
in Paris

Last modified on Mon 14 Dec 2020 06.07 EST

EU leaders have welcomed news that fraught Brexit trade talks will continue next week, but insisted the bloc was united in its determination to protect its single market as commentators lamented a “warlike, xenophobic” British press.

The European commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, said UK and EU negotiators would “go the extra mile” to find an agreement that would guarantee Britain zero-tariff, zero-quota access to the EU’s internal market after what she described as a useful phone call with Boris Johnson.

The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, said everything should be done to reach an agreement that would avert a chaotic and economically damaging no deal. “Every opportunity to reach a deal is highly welcome,” she said in Berlin.

Ireland’s foreign minister, Simon Coveney, said he believed a deal was “clearly very difficult” but was within reach providing both sides held their nerve.

With 19 days left until Britain leaves the EU single market at the end of the post-Brexit transition period, Coveney said that despite some comments to the contrary last week he did think both sides wanted a deal. “It really needs to be done within the next few days,” he said.

Ireland’s foreign minister, Simon Coveney
Ireland’s foreign minister, Simon Coveney. Photograph: Yves Herman/Reuters

Analysts were not convinced the decision to continue talking signified any real progress. “Probably best not to read too much into the ‘useful’ nature of the phone call,” said Fabian Zuleeg of the Brussels-based European Policy Centre.

“The problem areas remain, and no landing zone for a deal has been identified. Negotiations need to have a purpose, adding more days doesn’t really help. It looks likely looks likely that neither side wants to be blamed for no deal.”

The French newspaper Libération said the prospects of a deal had not been improved by by the fact that “habitual xenophobia” and “hysteria” of the British tabloids – which this weekend included personal attacks on Merkel and a threat to “send in gunboats” – had “reached new heights of outrageousness”.

Failure to reach a deal would mean cross-Channel trade reverting to World Trade Organization rules from January. Tariffs would drive up prices, and customs and other border checks would snarl up borders and disrupt supply chains across the continent. Relations between London and Brussels would be poisoned possibly for years to come.

Brexit trade deal still possible, says Michel Barnier – video 
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Brexit trade deal still possible, says Michel Barnier – video 

The EU 27 have insisted since the day after Britain’s Brexit referendum in June 2016 that they would not allow the UK to “cherry-pick” rights and obligations, and that if British companies were to have preferential access to the single marketthey would have to continue to observe its rules.

Insisting on its right to full post-Brexit sovereignty, the UK is reluctant to accept EU demands for a “level playing field” and, in particular, to agree a mechanism that would allow the bloc to retaliate if UK and EU law were to diverge in a way that would give British companies an unfair competitive advantage.

Spain’s EU and foreign affairs minister, Arancha González Laya, said the UK’s insistence on asserting its sovereignty was an unnecessary obstacle in the talks.

“Trade deals are not meant to assert sovereignty,” she told Sky News. “It’s pretty clear when you do a trade deal that you are a sovereign nation. The UK and the EU are interdependent, so let’s do a trade deal that manages that interdependence.”

Charles Michel, the president of the European council of EU heads of state and government, told France Inter radio on Sunday that the bloc would “keep its cool” and do all it could to make a deal possible. “We must support a good deal,” he said.

He stressed, however, that it would be “impossible to put a cigarette paper” between the member states on the key issue. “We are reasonable,” Michel said. “We want to maintain close relations with Britain. But we want to preserve and protect the single market.”

Commentators also expressed surprise at Johnson’s attempts – rebuffed by Paris and Berlin – to talk to Merkel and the French president, Emmanuel Macron, rather than the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier.

Catherine de Vries, a political scientist at Bocconi university in Italy, said the UK’s strategy appeared to be to “try to use a cliff edge to pit member states against each other”, using “asymmetric Brexit fallout as a means to get concessions”. The problem, she said, is that it “hasn’t worked. And there is no plan B.”