The EU Chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier has admitted he cannot guarantee the bloc will strike a trade deal with Britain, adding that the next few days will be crucial for the fate of the negotiations.
In a closed-door meeting of Members of European Parliament (MEPs), where he briefed both EU ambassadors and parliamentarians after 28 consecutive days of talks, he also warned the UK that a deal needs to be reached by the end of this week.
“I sincerely do not know if we can reach for a deal,” Barnier said, according to a transcript of the meeting.
“The coming hours and days will be decisive. We are quickly approaching a make-or-break moment in the Brexit talks.
“Intensive negotiations are continuing in London, but as of this morning it is still unclear whether negotiators can bridge the gaps on issues like level playing field, governance and fisheries”
David McAllister, an MEP from German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party, cautioned, “We are under time pressure.”
Angela Merkel had indicated earlier that, with time running out, some EU countries are growing impatient.
“We hope that the negotiations will have a good end,” she said. “We don’t need a deal at any price and we have made this clear… A deal is in everyone’s interest.”
The meeting came after some diplomats expressed concern that Barnier’s negotiating team might be offering the British government too many compromises, a claim the Chief Negotiator refuted.
“There’s an objective difference between a member state and a third state. That’s what Brexit is. It has consequences.”
EU officials are worried that offering the UK a “zero-tariff, zero quota deal without a commitment on minimum standards” would lead to “dumping” and undermine the bloc’s single market.
Barnier and his British counterpart, David Frost, have been at loggerheads for months over key points that include unfair competition rules, policing any future deal and fishing rights.
EU diplomats told reporters that there had been “some progress” on these issues, but that “a deal hangs in the balance.”
Both negotiating teams have been locked in intensified negotiations over the past four days in another bid to break the deadlock.
Talks will continue until the end of the week when Barnier and European Commission officials will review progress once more.
A no-deal Brexit would mean that the UK and EU fall back on rules set for international trade by the World Trade Organization. It means tariffs will be slapped on goods sold and extra customs checks at major ports across the UK and in northern Europe.
One EU diplomat told reporters that Barnier should not sign a rushed deal, even if it means a period of trade without an agreement.
“There is a worry that because of this pressure of time there is a temptation to rush,” the diplomat said after a briefing by negotiator Michel Barnier for the 27 member states’ envoys in Brussels. “We told him: don’t do that.”