LONDON/BRUSSELS (Reuters) – A frustrated European Union and piqued Britain both exhorted the other on Tuesday to compromise to avoid a fast-approaching disruptive finale to the five-year Brexit drama that would add to economic pain from the coronavirus crisis.
Failure to clinch a trade deal when Britain leaves a standstill transition period on Dec. 31 would sow chaos through supply chains and undermine Europe’s economy as it already sees jobs and businesses pulverised by the COVID-19 disease.
After an EU demand for concessions, Prime Minister Boris Johnson broke off talks and said it was time to prepare for a no-deal Brexit.
The EU has since offered to intensify talks and open discussions on legal texts of a draft deal, but Britain maintains there is no basis to resume discussions without a fundamental change in approach.
“My message: we should be making the most out of the little time left,” Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, said after a telephone call with British counterpart David Frost.
“Our door remains open.”
The European Commission said it was ready to negotiate though both sides would have to compromise.
Johnson’s spokesman said the EU had to show it was taking a fundamentally different approach.
EU diplomats cast Britain’s moves as bluster and a frantic bid to secure concessions before a last-minute deal, though an ally of German Chancellor Angela Merkel said chances of a deal were narrowing.
“At the moment, I see the chances worse than 50-50,” Detlef Seif, Brexit rapporteur for Merkel’s conservatives in the lower house of parliament, told Reuters. “The ball is still in Britain’s court at the moment.”
There is concern in some European capitals that Johnson may judge that the domestic political benefits and potentially the long-term economic freedom of a noisy no-deal exit outweigh the benefits of a shallow trade deal.
“If they want to get back to the negotiating table, they can,” said one EU diplomat. “If they want to jump – we won’t be able to stop them.”
“All this posturing is only aimed at strengthening Johnson’s hand. If they don’t want to talk, that’s their choice. There is no point at this stage to give them anything more,” said another EU diplomat.
Britain formally left the EU at the end of January, but the two sides have been haggling over a deal that would govern $900 billion in trade from car parts to medicines.
Johnson and his Brexit supremo Michael Gove will tell businesses on a video call on Tuesday to step up preparations for the end of the transition period.
Failure to strike a deal with the EU would be “extremely damaging” and cut profits by up to a quarter at carmaker Bentley, its boss told Reuters, as the government urges firms to plan for potential disruption.
(Reporting by Guy Faulconbridge, Elizabeth Piper, Michael Holden and Costas Pitas in London; Editing by Alex Richardson and Andrew Cawthorne)