British prime minister Boris Johnson is to speak to European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen on Saturday in a video call to assess the prospect of a deal as the deadline to agree trade terms inches closer.
The video call would involve “stock-taking of negotiations and discussion of next steps” according to an EU spokesman, and was announced as a week of talks conclude in Brussels between British and EU negotiating teams.
Brussels sources have played down the significance of the meeting after its announcement led to speculation of an imminent breakthrough, indicating that weeks more of negotiations would be required before any potential compromise might come into view.
The European Commission on Wednesday launched infringement proceedings against Britain for introducing its Internal Market Bill, which would unpick aspects of the withdrawal agreement reached last year and was seen as a breach of good faith.
British chief negotiator David Frost produced several new position papers when talks commenced this week, and Mr Johnson’s government has signalled optimism over the prospect of a deal.
But EU sources maintain that the two sides are still far apart on the key issues of fisheries, state aid, and governance, and that the British side has not yet indicated a willingness to compromise that would herald a deal.
EU member states have also insisted that a deal cannot be reached if the Internal Market Bill goes ahead with controversial articles that breach international law by overriding aspects of the withdrawal agreement related to checks between Northern Ireland and Britain, which were agreed to avoid a border across the island of Ireland.
Fianna Fáil MEP Billy Kelleher warned that only a very limited deal could be possible in the time available, and urged both sides to be pragmatic to avoid profound economic damage if no deal is in place on January 1st.
“We need agreement and results as, let us be frank, time is running out for a deal,” Mr Kelleher said.
“The time is coming for both sides to agree that the only realistic option now is a ‘skinny-deal’, a bare bones agreement to keep trade flowing until such time as a fuller, more comprehensive free trade agreement can be negotiated.”
“Citizens in Ireland, on both sides of the border, in Great Britain, and in the rest of the EU just want a deal that protects their rights, limits disruption and brings an end to this difficult chapter.”
Taoiseach Micheál Martin is set to address the 26 other member states of the EU at the bloc’s summit on Friday to give the point of view of the country most affected by Brexit.