Post-Brexit trade talks have entered their final day, with the UK and European Union continuing last-ditch efforts to find a breakthrough on a deal before the weekend deadline.
Negotiators were set to carry on discussions into the early hours while Boris Johnson will again speak with European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen on Sunday, despite pessimism from both sides.
Sources in the British Government warned the offer on the table from the EU is still “unacceptable” to the UK, with the country teetering on the edge of a no-deal Brexit that is predicted to cost jobs and force food prices to increase.
The trade talks continue to be deadlocked over the thorny issues of fishing rights and the so-called level playing field “ratchet” that would tie the UK to future EU standards.
Mr Johnson and his European counterpart previously had a dinner meeting in Brussels during the week in which both agreed a firm decision on the future of negotiations was needed by the end of the weekend.
The outlook after discussions on Saturday was described as “very difficult” but officials said the Prime Minister is determined to explore every option to secure a free trade agreement.
A Government source said: “Talks are continuing overnight, but as things stand the offer on the table from the EU remains unacceptable.
“The Prime Minister will leave no stone unturned in this process, but he is absolutely clear: any agreement must be fair and respect the fundamental position that the UK will be a sovereign nation in three weeks’ time.”
Mr Johnson is expected to give a press conference or issue a recorded statement to update the nation once he finishes a call with Europe’s top official.
The Conservative Party leader and Ms von der Leyen have warned a no-deal outcome looks more likely than an agreement in the trade negotiations.
With the Prime Minister describing no-deal as “very, very likely”, the Government has stepped up preparations for crashing out of the single market when transition arrangements end on December 31, with Mr Johnson taking personal control of ensuring the country is ready.
He is leading a “Super XO” committee to oversee preparations as ministers look to ensure food, medicines – including coronavirus vaccines – and other critical goods can continue to reach the country uninterrupted next year.
The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) has called for “grace periods” to be agreed so businesses do not face a “damaging cliff edge” if there proves to be no meeting of minds on a deal.
In a move likely to incense EU leaders, a Government spokesman revealed the UK had “run live exercises” that involved scrambling “naval vessels to respond to threats of illegal fishing in our soon-to-be sovereign waters” as part of readiness efforts.
It follows confirmation from the Ministry of Defence that four Royal Navy gunboats have been placed on stand-by to guard British waters from EU trawlers if there is no agreement – an announcement that has been greeted with anger by some senior Tories.
Reports also suggest ministers are considering beefing up Navy powers in legislation to authorise them to board and arrest fishermen found to be contravening post-Brexit rules.
Tobias Ellwood, Conservative chairman of the Commons Defence Committee, called the threat “irresponsible” and warned it would damage Britain’s international reputation.
Military officials disagreed, however, with Admiral Lord West, a former chief of naval staff, arguing that fiery past clashes between fishermen in the Channel suggested armed forces intervention could be required.
French MEP Pierre Karleskind, chairman of the European Parliament’s Committee on Fisheries, called for “calm” heads when it came to working on a fisheries solution if the talks collapsed.
Brussels has called for the status quo on fishing rights to continue for 12 months in the event of no-deal – a request that appears to have been rejected after the Government revealed plans to scale up patrols.
Mr Johnson, in a speech at a climate change summit on Saturday, appeared to take a dig at French President Emmanuel Macron over the fishing row.
Mr Macron is said to have threatened to veto a UK-EU deal after expressing dissatisfaction at the new quota terms being thrashed out for French fishermen.
In his closing remarks, the Prime Minister thanked summit co-host Mr Macron, adding that he knew the En Marche! leader “shares my keen interest in protecting the ecosystems of our seas”.
Tory MP David Jones wrote in the Sunday Telegraph the PM “must keep faith with the British people and resist any temptation to accept a sub-optimal deal that would cheat them of the sovereignty for which they voted”.
The deputy chairman of the European Research Group added: “He should by all means negotiate, if necessary, until the stroke of 11 o’clock on New Year’s Eve; but if the EU still refuses a deal that fully respects our hard-won independence, he should leave the table in the knowledge that he has the full support of his countrymen and women.”
On Sunday morning, Conservative former minister Sir John Redwood accused the bloc of making “empty threats”.
“End the talks. The EU wants to stop us being independent. They cannot stop our trade. People and businesses buy and sell under WTO rules. The EU just makes empty threats,” Sir John tweeted.
“Will the Cabinet Office stop behaving as if it believes Project Fear scares? Tell us how we will use our new freedoms from EU exit to create a more prosperous UK.”
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