Situation tricky ahead of Brexit talks, says British PM

Johnson hopeful for trade deal but warns a time may come to abandon negotiations

LONDON • British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has warned that "the situation is tricky" as he prepares to travel to Brussels for talks to break the deadlocked negotiations over a post-Brexit trade deal.

"It's looking very, very difficult at the moment," Mr Johnson told reporters yesterday, in his first public comments since announcing he will meet European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen in the coming days. "Hope springs eternal, and I'll do my best to sort it out if we can," he said.

The meeting's date has yet to be decided.

European Union leaders will be gathering for a summit in Brussels tomorrow and, in a sign that the bloc is likely to resist making any significant last-minute concessions to the UK, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron agreed that Brexit negotiations should be kept off the agenda.

While Mr Johnson said he is very hopeful of securing a trade deal, he also warns that there may come a time to abandon negotiations if progress is not made.

"I'm very hopeful, but I've got to be honest with you, I think that the situation at the moment is very tricky," he told reporters in a pooled TV clip.

"We're willing to engage at any level, political or otherwise, we're willing to try anything," he said. "But there are just limits beyond which, obviously, no sensible independent government or country could go."

The two sides are still far apart, with significant differences on the three key issues of fisheries, rules for fair competition and the governance of any deal, they said in a joint statement on Monday evening.

Disagreements on those subjects have dogged the negotiations since they began eight months ago.

The British side gave a bleak view of the state of play, warning that the negotiations may be headed for failure. The Europeans were also pessimistic, with Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney warning of mounting frustration with the British approach.

Meanwhile, UK businesses fired a broadside at ministers for leaving them no time to adapt to post-Brexit rules, even if negotiators do strike a trade deal.

Executives and lobbyists from industries ranging from aerospace to law decried their situation in written statements to the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy panel of lawmakers ahead of yesterday's hearing on Brexit preparedness.

ADS, the aerospace and defence lobby, said: "The uncertainty produced by the current negotiations and the lack of time with which to deal with the outcome before the end of the transition period on Dec 31, 2020, is highly damaging to business confidence and their ability to prepare."

Britain's food and drink lobby group said that food imports from the EU to the UK will face disruption next month due to new Brexit border checks.

"We can't be absolutely certain about the movement of food," Mr Ian Wright, chief executive of the Food and Drink Federation, told a panel of lawmakers in Parliament yesterday. "This is all about lorries with the right paperwork getting in through a particularly small number of ports."

Mr Wright said UK food exporters have started losing business in the EU due to Britain's pending departure from the bloc's single market and customs union.

Separately, law firms are facing "significant issues, additional costs and a reduced ability to service EU-based clients from January 2021", despite preparations to deal with them, said the Law Society of England and Wales. Britain's legal services industry accounts for 552,000 full-time employees and was worth almost £60 billion (S$106.8 billion) in 2018.

And corner shops are worried about higher wholesale prices, availability of stock and a lack of clarity over the trading programme for the border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, said the Association of Convenience Stores, which represents 33,500 local shops. Most of its members are small and independent operators and, therefore, totally reliant on suppliers and wholesalers taking the right action.

Small and medium-sized businesses are also unlikely to be ready for post-Brexit accounting regimes, said financial software firm Sage Group. It called for a "soft landing" period with forgiveness on faulty filings as businesses adapt to new rules around sales tax and customs.


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 09, 2020, with the headline Situation tricky ahead of Brexit talks, says British PM. Subscribe