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Serious differences remain after latest round of Brexit trade talks, says Barnier

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European Union chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier in Brussels on Aug. 21, 2020.
European Union chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier in Brussels on Aug. 21, 2020.   -   Copyright  Yves Herman, Pool Photo via AP
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"Persistent serious divergences" between the UK and the European Union remain, the bloc's chief Brexit negotiator said on Friday after the latest round of talks ended.

Michel Barnier flagged in a statement that there had been "positive new developments" during the latest — ninth — round of negotiations on topics including aviation safety, social security coordination and the respect of fundamental rights and individual freedoms.

But he also highlighted that there had been "a lack of progress on some important topics" including the protection of personal data, climate change commitments or carbon pricing and that "persistent serious divergences on matters of major importance for the European Union" remain.

The two sides remain divided over long-term guarantees for open and fair competition, an agreement on fisheries, and robust enforcement and dispute settlement mechanisms.

These three issues have hampered the talks for months.

Barnier said the latter was "naturally more important following the UK government's introduction of the 'Internal Market Bill', which breaches its obligations under the Withdrawal Agreement and the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland."

It comes a day after Brussels launched legal action against London over the controversial bill. The UK says the draft legislation — which was approved by MPs earlier this week — is intended to "create a legal safety net" for the communities of Northern Ireland and protect the Good Friday Agreement but both the EU and the US have warned it could jeopardise the 1998 peace accords.

The two sides need to reach an agreement before the end of October to give parliaments enough time to approve it in order for the deal to come into force on January 1, 2021.

David Frost, Britain's lead Brexit negotiator, described the latest talks as "constructive" and "conducted in good spirit".

But he said the lack of progress made on key issues was down to the bloc.

On the level-playing field, he said "the EU need to move further before an understanding can be reached", and that "without realism and flexibility from the EU" the gap between the two sides on fisheries "risks being impossible to bridge".

"I am concerned that there is very little time now to resolve these issues ahead of the European Council on October 15" he added, vowing to "continue to be fully committed to working hard to find solutions, if they are to be found."

Barnier, meanwhile, said in his statement that the EU "will continue to maintain a calm and respectful attitude, and we will remain united and determined until the end of these negotiations".

Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson are to take stock of the Brexit negotiations and discuss the next steps in a video-conference call on Saturday, von der Leyen's spokesman announced on Friday.

Johnson told the Telegraph newspaper in an interview published on Saturday ahead of the virtual meeting that the chances of an agreement "are very good if everybody just exercises some common sense and looks at the deal that is there to be done".