BRUSSELS/LONDON (REUTERS) - London and Brussels agreed on Sunday (Dec 13) to more talks on an elusive trade agreement, even though they still have a long way to go to avert a turbulent 'no deal' exit for Britain from the European Union's orbit at the end of the month.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the president of the EU's executive Commission, Ursula von der Leyen gave negotiators a Sunday deadline to find a way to resolve an impasse on arrangements that would guarantee Britain zero-tariff and zero-quota access to the EU's single market.
Both said on Friday (Dec 11) that a 'no-deal' was now the most likely outcome, but on Sunday they pledged to go "the extra mile", mandating negotiators to continue.
"Despite the exhaustion after almost a year of negotiations, despite the fact that deadlines have been missed over and over we think it is responsible at this point to go the extra mile," Prime Minister Boris Johnson and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said in a joint statement.
British foreign minister Dominic Raab said earlier the British side needed the EU to shift position on two issues.
"We want to be treated like any other independent self-respecting democracy. If the EU can accept that at a political level, then there's every reason to be confident but there is still, I think, a long way to go," he told Sky News.
On the same programme, Spanish foreign minister Arancha Gonzalez Laya retorted: "A trade deal is not made to assert one's independence but to manage our interdependence."
Britain quit the EU in January but remains an informal member until Dec 31 - the end of a transition period during which it has remained in the EU single market and customs union.
A Brexit without a trade deal would damage the economies of Europe, send shockwaves through financial markets, snarl borders and sow chaos through the delicate supply chains across Europe and beyond.
The two sides have struggled to agree on fishing rights in British waters and EU demands that Britain face consequences if in the future it diverges from the bloc's rules for fair competition - what it calls a level playing field.
"They are making some inroads on difficult stuff. How to manage divergence and soften the blows for (EU) fishermen is still open," one EU diplomat said.
Irish Prime Minister Micheal Martin said with some degree of creativity, a solution could be found on the level playing field and that he fervently hoped talks would go on beyond Sunday.
Failure to get a deal would be an "appalling failure of statecraft" on both sides, Martin told the BBC.
The British government has warned that even with a trade deal, 7,000 trucks heading for Channel ports in south-east England could be held in 100km queues if companies do not prepare the extra paperwork required.
Britain is expected to fast-track the movement of some perishable goods when its transition period ends to help reduce the expected disruption at ports.
In a sign that British officials are preparing for no deal, the Sunday Telegraph reported that ministers are drawing up a 10 billion pound (S$18 billion) package to bail out the worst-hit industries.
The sectors affected range from sheep farmers and fishermen to carmakers and chemical companies.
The Ministry of Defence said four Royal Navy patrol ships will be ready on Jan 1 to help protect Britain's fishing waters in the event of no deal.
There are concerns about possible skirmishes between British and foreign fishing vessels under that scenario because existing rules that give EU boats access to British waters will expire. France on Saturday shrugged off the naval deployment plans.
"Keep calm and carry on," an official at the French presidential office told Reuters, using a British wartime slogan.