With less than three weeks until the UK’s final split from the European Union, key aspects of the future relationship between the 27-nation bloc and its former member remain unresolved.
Britain and the European Union say talks will continue on a free trade agreement — a deal that if sealed would avert New Year's chaos for cross-border traders and bring a measure of certainty for businesses after years of Brexit turmoil.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen had set Sunday as the deadline for a breakthrough or breakdown in negotiations.
But they stepped back from the brink, saying it was “responsible at this point in time to go the extra mile” and had told their negotiators to continue talking.
Progress came after months of tense and often testy negotiations that gradually whittled differences down to three key issues: fair-competition rules, mechanisms for resolving future disputes and fishing rights.
It has been four and a half years since Britons voted by 52%-48% to leave the EU and — in the words of the Brexiteers’ slogan — “take back control” of the UK’s borders and laws.
It took more than three years of wrangling before Britain left the bloc’s political structures on Jan. 31. Disentangling economies that have become closely entwined as part of the EU’s single market for goods and services took even longer.
The UK has remained part of the single market and customs union during an 11-month post-Brexit transition period. That means so far, many people will have noticed little impact from Brexit.
On Jan. 1, it will feel real. New Year's Day will bring huge changes, even with a deal. No longer will goods and people be able to move between the UK and its continental neighbours.
Exporters and importers face customs declarations, goods checks and other obstacles. EU nationals will no longer be able to live and work in Britain without a visa — though that doesn't apply to the more than 3 million already there - and Britons can no longer automatically work or retire in the EU.
There are still unanswered questions about huge areas, including security cooperation between the UK and the bloc and access to the EU market for Britain’s huge financial services sector.
Without a deal UK will trade with the bloc on World Trade Organization terms, with all the tariffs and barriers that would bring.
The UK government has acknowledged a chaotic exit is likely to bring gridlock at Britain’s ports, temporary shortages of some goods and price increases for staple foodstuff. Tariffs will be applied to many UK goods, including 10 percent on cars and more than 40 percent on lamb.
Still, Johnson says the UK will “prosper mightily” on those terms.
To jumpstart the flagging talks, negotiators have imposed several deadlines, but none have brought the sides closer together on the issues of fair trading standards, legal oversight of any deal and the rights of EU fishermen to go into UK waters.
While both sides want a deal on the terms of a new relationship, they have fundamentally different views of what it entails. The EU fears Britain will slash social and environmental standards and pump state money into UK industries, becoming a low-regulation economic rival on the bloc’s doorstep, so is demanding strict “level playing field” guarantees in exchange for access to its markets.
The UK government claims the EU is trying to bind Britain to the bloc’s rules and regulations indefinitely, rather than treating it as an independent nation.
Spanish Foreign Minister Arancha Gonzalez Laya said a no-deal Brexit would be a “double whammy” for economies already battered by the coronavirus pandemic.
“It is clear when you do a trade deal that you are a sovereign nation; they are made to manage interdependence,” she told Sky News. “The UK and the European Union are interdependent so let’s do a deal which reflects the need to manage this interdependence.”
Britain’s belligerent tabloid press urged Johnson to stand firm, and floated the prospect of Royal Navy vessels patrolling UK waters against intruding European vessels.
But others, in Britain and across the EU, urged the two sides to keep talking.
Irish Prime Minister Micheal Martin, whose economy is more entwined with Britain’s than any other EU state, said he “fervently” hoped the talks wouldn't end Sunday.
“It is absolutely imperative that both sides continue to engage and both sides continue to negotiate to avoid a no-deal," Martin told the BBC. "A no-deal would be very bad for all of us.
“Even at the 11th hour, the capacity in my view exists for the United Kingdom and the European Union to conclude a deal that is in all our interests.”