Britain and the EU enter the final stretch of the Brexit negotiations with renewed hope of a deal being struck within days after Boris Johnson and Ursula von der Leyen agreed to “go the extra mile” and ordered the resumption of talks in Brussels.
As the prime minister played down expectations following a telephone conversation with the European commission president, EU embassies in Brussels were briefed that “progress has been made” and that “the next days will be important”. UK negotiators are expected to stay in Brussels until at least Tuesday.
There were reports over the weekend that government sources had put the chances of no deal at 80%. The leaders’ phone call at noon Brussels time on Sunday had been presented as a point by which a “firm decision” would be made on the prospects of a trade and security deal, with Johnson saying on Friday that it was “very, very likely” the talks would end in failure.
In the event, shortly after the phone call, Von der Leyen and Johnson released a joint statement saying: “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.”
It said the two sides had a responsibility to keep on working. “We had a useful phone call this morning. We discussed the major unresolved topics. Our negotiating teams have been working day and night over recent days..
“We have accordingly mandated our negotiators to continue the talks and to see whether an agreement can even at this late stage be reached.”
However, in a separate statement, Johnson said he had briefed the cabinet to be ready for a no-deal exit. The prime minister said his request to open talks directly with Berlin and Paris had been rejected.
“The commission is very determined to keep the negotiations the way that they have been done between us, and that’s fine,” he said. “The most likely thing now is of course that we have to get ready for WTO [World Trade Organization] terms, Australia terms, and don’t forget everybody, we’ve made huge preparations for four and a half years … perhaps more intensively in the last couple of years.”
He added: “I think that the UK should continue to try. And I think that’s what the people of this country would want me to do. We’re going to continue to try and we’re going to try with all our hearts and we’ll be as creative as we possibly can. But what we can’t do is compromise on that fundamental nature of what Brexit is all about.”
The former cabinet minister Iain Duncan Smith said MPs now expected that the talks would go to the wire, though others said the negotiations must be done in time for parliament to scrutinise the deal.
“It is dawning on European leaders that we are serious about leaving without a deal,” Duncan Smith said. “We are now at the end of the beginning. Between now and the 31st is where we will get serious compression.”
He said Johnson would have a “problem back home” if there was any give from the UK side on the level playing field terms. However, he said a short extension to allow for ratification might even be acceptable as long as a deal was done by the 31st.
“If push comes to shove, they can give themselves a bye post-31 December of a month while the sides sort out their legislation, as long as these issues are sorted satisfactorily,” he said.
David Jones, the vice-chair of the European Reform Group of hard Brexit Tories, said MPs would be prepared to read a deal on Christmas Day and vote in between Christmas and the new year, but he said it would be highly preferable for MPs to scrutinise the deal, including taking legal advice, before the final deadline.
Von der Leyen travelled to Paris on Sunday to see Emmanuel Macron for a pre-scheduled dinner. In Berlin, Angela Merkel said the EU “should try everything” to get an agreement.
Johnson said he had wanted to involve Merkel and Macron in the talks but had been rebuffed again by the commission.
“The negotiating position hasn’t changed in any way, and the fact that the talks are not easy is clear,” Merkel said. “Britain is leaving the internal market, and we of course need to make sure that there are fair conditions for competition in place if the legal situation between the UK and the EU moves further apart.”
Ireland’s foreign minister, Simon Coveney, said: “I think both sides do want a deal and they want a deal now. My view is that a deal can be done, but it really needs to be done within the next few days.”
EU sources said the two sides were finding common ground over clauses in a potential deal designed to ensure neither side could undercut the other as they set their own regulatory standards.
The negotiations between the teams led by the UK’s chief negotiator, David Frost, and his EU counterpart, Michel Barnier, ran until midnight on Saturday, with the British team ending the evening with bacon sandwiches in the UK ambassador’s residence.
Johnson said the UK and the EU “remain very far apart on these key issues”, adding: “Let’s see what we can achieve … if Ursula is optimistic, then that’s great … as far as I can see there, there are some serious and very difficult issues that currently separate the UK from the EU.”
The biggest stumbling block to a deal has been the EU’s demand for an “evolution” or “ratchet” clause in the treaty that would create a mechanism to ensure that a minimum baseline of environmental, social and labour standards evolves over time, to ensure there is no significant distortion of trade.
Downing Street has said the EU’s proposals would tie the UK to follow regulatory changes in Brussels on pain of automatic tariffs. Arbitration over those tariffs would only then follow.
It is understood that the EU has agreed that tariffs should be applied only once there is clear evidence that regulatory changes by one side have significantly distorted trade. Frost tabled a fresh proposal on Saturday.
In a sign of a meeting of minds, the UK foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, agreed that comments from the Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte, on Friday about the need for a “structured” way to address distortions to trade had been welcome.
Raab said: “Mark Rutte is one voice, he is normally pretty pragmatic, we are normally quite close to the Dutch on these matters … There are plenty of other voices. The bottom line is this: are we required to follow EU rules past, present, future and do we have a situation where when we are exercising normal control over our own law as any democracy does that we suddenly find there is a torpedo of tariffs.”
Ireland’s taoiseach, Micheál Martin, said last week’s agreement on implementing the Northern Ireland protocol showed that the two sides could reach accommodation on difficult issues. “I think it would be an appalling failure of statecraft if we were not in a position to get a deal over the line,” he said.