Britain and the European Union warned Tuesday that talks on a post-Brexit free-trade deal are teetering on the brink of collapse, with just over three weeks until an economic rupture that will cause upheaval for businesses on both sides of the English Channel.
Officials downplayed the chances of a breakthrough when Prime Minister Boris Johnson heads to Brussels for face-to-face talks with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in the next few days.
With negotiators deadlocked on key issues after months of tense talks, Johnson said the situation at the moment is very tricky.
"Our friends have just got to understand the UK has left the EU in order to be able to exercise democratic control over the way we do things," Johnson said during a visit to a hospital where some of the world's first COVID-19 vaccinations were being administered. "There is also the issue of fisheries where we are a long way apart still.
But hope springs eternal. I will do my best to sort it out if we can.
German European Affairs Minister Michael Roth said the blocs confidence in Britain was hanging in the balance.
What we need is political will in London, said Roth, whose country currently holds the EUs rotating presidency. Let me be very clear, our future relationship is based on trust and confidence. Its precisely this confidence that is at stake in our negotiations right now.
"We want to reach a deal, but not at any price, Roth told reporters before chairing videoconference talks among his EU counterparts.
Johnson and von der Leyen, head of the EUs executive arm, spoke by phone Monday for the second time in 48 hours but failed to break the talks impasse. They said afterwards that significant differences remained on three key issues fishing rights, fair-competition rules and the governance of future disputes and the conditions for finalizing an agreement are not there.
The two leaders said in the joint statement that they planned to discuss the remaining differences in a physical meeting in Brussels in the coming days.
No date was given for the meeting. Leaders of the EU's 27 nations are holding a two-day summit in Brussels starting Thursday and are not keen for it to be overshadowed by Brexit.
The UK left the EU politically on Jan. 31, but remains within the blocs tariff-free single market and customs union through Dec. 31. Reaching a trade deal by then would ensure there are no tariffs and trade quotas on goods exported or imported by the two sides, although there would still be new costs and red tape.
Both sides would suffer economically from a failure to secure a trade deal, but most economists think the British economy would take a greater hit because the UK does almost half its trade with the bloc.
While both sides want a deal to keep trade running relatively smoothly, talks have stalled because they have fundamentally different views of what it entails. The EU accuses Britain of seeking to retain access to the blocs vast market without agreeing to abide by its rules. It fears Britain will slash social and environmental standards and pump state money into UK industries, becoming a low-regulation economic rival on the blocs doorstep — hence the demand for strict level playing field guarantees.
The UK government sees Brexit as about sovereignty and taking back control of the countrys laws, borders and waters. It claims the EU is making demands it has not placed on other countries with whom it has free trade deals, such as Canada, and is trying to bind Britain to the blocs rules indefinitely.
Trust and goodwill between the two sides have been further strained by British legislation that breaches the legally binding Brexit withdrawal agreement Johnson struck with the EU last year.
Britain says the Internal Market Bill, which gives the government power to override parts of the withdrawal agreement relating to trade with Northern Ireland, is needed as an insurance policy to protect the flow of goods within the UK in the event of a no-deal Brexit. The EU sees it as an act of bad faith that could imperil Northern Irelands peace settlement.
The House of Lords, Parliaments unelected upper chamber, removed the law-breaking clauses from the legislation last month, but the elected House of Commons restored them on Monday night.
As the parliamentary tussle continues, the British government has offered the bloc an olive branch on the issue, saying it will remove the lawbreaking clauses if a joint UK-EU committee on Northern Ireland finds solutions in the coming days.