The spectre of a no-deal Brexit has come a step closer after Boris Johnson ended one-on-one talks with the president of the European Commission without any breakthrough in the search for a free trade agreement.
The prime minister and Ursula von der Leyen have instructed chief negotiators David Frost and Michel Barnier to “work intensively” to bridge “significant” remaining differences on fisheries, governance and the level playing field on standards demanded by Brussels.
But a joint statement released after the phone discussion appeared to signal awareness on both sides that a deal may not be achievable, saying that they regard it as important to get an agreement “if at all possible”.
Lord Frost said that new talks will take place next week, with more believed to be planned in Brussels the week after amid expectations that Mr Johnson’s self-imposed deadline of 15 October will be missed.
Failure to achieve a breakthrough in what was scheduled to be the final round of talks in Brussels last week has raised questions over whether enough time remains to negotiate a free trade deal and get it endorsed by the European Parliament before the end of the UK’s transition out of the EU at 11pm on 31 December.
If no deal is reached by that time, the UK will be forced to trade with its nearest neighbours on World Trade Organisation terms with tariffs on many goods. The prime minister refers to this as an Australian-style arrangement, as Australia has no deal with the EU.
He today restated his willingness to accept no-deal, breaking into a Crocodile Dundee accent as he told the Daily Telegraph: “Australia holds no terrors for us mate, we say good on yer, no worries, no wukkas.”
The joint statement said: “The President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, and the UK prime minister, Boris Johnson, spoke today about the state of play in the negotiations on the future relationship between the UK and the EU.
“They agreed on the importance of finding an agreement, if at all possible, as a strong basis for a strategic EU-UK relationship in future.
“They endorsed the assessment of both chief negotiators that progress had been made in recent weeks but that significant gaps remained, notably but not only in the areas of fisheries, the level playing field, and governance.
“They instructed their chief negotiators to work intensively in order to try to bridge those gaps.
“They agreed to speak on a regular basis on this issue.”
In a tweet, Ms von der Leyen said she had had a “good phone call” with the prime minister.
And she added: “While progress had been made, significant gaps remain. We agreed that it’s important to find an agreement as strong basis for a strategic relationship.”
Following the completion of the latest round of trade talks on Friday, Ms von der Leyen warned that “time is running out” and urged London to compromise on areas of contention, saying: “Where there’s a will there’s a way.”
But Mr Johnson retorted that the onus was on Brussels to give ground, saying: “It’s up to our friends and partners to be common-sensical.”
Liberal Democrat Brexit spokesperson Christine Jardine said she understood a deal was being blocked by Tory fears of signing up to climate change commitments.
“We are just days from the prime minister’s arbitrary deadline to secure a deal, and warm words will not be enough to ease the worries of countless businesses and individuals facing uncertain futures,” she said.
“Boris Johnson’s cack-handed and frankly illegal approach has only succeeded making things worse and history will judge his actions.”