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Brexit talks: 'Narrow path' exists to a deal with UK, von der Leyen tells MEPs

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By Alasdair Sandford
President of Commission Ursula von der Leyen delivers a speech at European Parliament, in Brussels, on December 16, 2020.
President of Commission Ursula von der Leyen delivers a speech at European Parliament, in Brussels, on December 16, 2020.   -   Copyright  JOHN THYS / POOL / AFP
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European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen gave some cautious optimism over the prospects for a post-Brexit trade deal on Wednesday, when she updated MEPs on the state of play in negotiations with the UK.

She said that while progress had been made on the so-called "level playing field", talks on fisheries remained "very difficult".

"As things stand, I can not tell you whether there will be a deal or not. But I can tell you that there is a path to an agreement now. The path may be very narrow, but it is there. And it is therefore our responsibility to continue trying.

"The good news is that we have found a way forward on most issues. But this is now a case of us being so close, and yet being so far away from each other," she said.

The main obstacles to a deal have been EU fishing rights in UK waters, safeguards to ensure fair competition, and a mechanism to enforce a deal.

'Progress' on competition, governance 'largely resolved'

Von der Leyen reminded MEPs that an EU priority was to "establish robust mechanisms" to ensure fair competition with the UK in future, focusing on state aid and standards.

"On state aid, we have made progress based on common principles, guarantees of domestic enforcement and the possibility to autonomously remedy the situation where needed," she said.

"On standards, we have agreed a strong mechanism of non-regression, that's a big step forward. And this is to ensure that our common high labour, social and environmental standards will not be undercut."

The Commission president added that she was "glad to report that issues linked to governance by now are largely being resolved", referring to the question of how to police a deal.

On the other key obstacle, von der Leyen said the question of EU access to UK fishing waters sometimes felt impossible to resolve, but "we must continue to fight" for a solution.

"We do not question the UK sovereignty on its own waters, but we ask for predictability and stability for our fishermen and our fisherwomen," she said.

Speaking later at Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons, Boris Johnson said that "whatever happens in the next few days" the UK would "prosper mightily on the terms" that are agreed to.

EU Council approves no-deal contingency plans

Despite many missed deadlines, the two sides have continued to negotiate even though time has run out for a conventional ratification process. Any deal must be turned into legal text, agreed by EU national leaders and ratified by both UK and European parliaments.

The UK left the EU last January and the transition period runs out at the end of the year. MEPs have expressed concern they could be asked to approve a post-Brexit trade deal with little scrutiny.

Failure to strike a trade deal would see the EU and the UK revert to basic international trading rules, increasing costs and disruption, and leaving arrangements on many other matters up in the air, from cooperation on security to scientific research.

The European Council — composed largely of national EU27 leaders — on Wednesday approved transport contingency plans for a no-deal scenario drawn up last week by the European Commission.

The end of the transition period will bring significant changes regardless of whether agreement on future EU-UK relations is reached.

The EU's principle of "free movement" will end between the UK and the continent, and new customs rules and border checks will kick in when the UK leaves the EU's Single Market and Customs Union to implement an independent trade policy.