With both sides digging in their heels as another deadline passed Thursday, the EU and Britain demanded concessions from one another in talks on a basic trade deal that would soften the economic blow of the coronavirus pandemic for all.

European Union chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier leaves after a press conference on the first day of the face-to-face EU summit at the European Council Building in Brussels, on October 15, 2020.
European Union chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier leaves after a press conference on the first day of the face-to-face EU summit at the European Council Building in Brussels, on October 15, 2020. (AFP)

European leaders have demanded Britain give ground on fair trade rules to unblock stalled post-Brexit negotiations, angering London and putting the fate of the talks in jeopardy.

The 27 bloc leaders arrived for a summit in Brussels expressing cautious optimism but, in their written conclusions, urged the EU and its member states to step up preparations for a chaotic "no-deal" exit.

Their calls for urgency were balanced however by an invitation that Britain keep talking next week in London and in Brussels the week after that.

"As of tomorrow I will be speaking with my counterpart David Frost. On Monday, we'll be in London for the full week, including the weekend if necessary," the EU's chief negotiator Michel Barnier said after addressing the leaders.

"That's what I have proposed to the British team," Barnier said.

READ MORE: Britain lays out tough stance for EU trade talks


The invite comes after a warning by Prime Minister Boris Johnson that he could walk away from the negotiations unless the results of the summit pointed to a breakthrough.

The EU never recognised his deadline and in their conclusions put the onus on Johnson to rescue a deal as time runs out.

In an unusually testy tweet, the UK's Frost said he was "disappointed" by the summit conclusions, underlining that they "no longer committed to working 'intensively' to reach a future partnership" as had been earlier promised.

Frost also scoffed at the EU's charge that only Britain should budge, calling it "an unusual approach to conducting a negotiation".

Johnson would decide his next move on Friday, he said.

READ MORE: Now for the hard part: EU-UK trade talks to be complicated

'Good compromise'

Tempers flared despite signals that the Europeans seemed to open to moving on one of their hard-held red lines, fishing.

President Emmanuel Macron of France hinted at possible compromise on the thorny issue of fishing rights, saying he was open to finding a "good compromise" that would ensure access for French fishermen to UK waters.

The insistence of France and other northern fishing nations on maintaining access to British waters has been a key stumbling block in the talks so far.

"We know that we will have to make an effort. This effort must be reasonable," Barnier said.

The European leaders have tried to keep Brexit off the agenda at their recent summits but, in a sign that the topic was heating up, were ordered to leave their phones out of the room during the discussion.

The official statement offers little to Johnson, dropping the line in an earlier draft that called for Barnier to "intensify" his discussions with Frost.

'A lot of work ahead'

During the call to Johnson on the eve of the crunch talks, EU chief Ursula von der Leyen warned that there was "still a lot of work ahead of us", adding that Brussels wants a deal but "not at any price".

In a surprising twist, as the summit got underway she was forced to leave the venue and self-isolate after a member of her office tested positive for coronavirus.

Barnier said the talks could go on until the end of October, the rough date set by the EU side in order to leave enough parliamentary time to ratify the deal before the Brexit transition expires on December 31.

But the British side has accused Brussels of trying to force concessions by running down the clock.

Diplomats in recent days said there had been some movement from Britain, but not enough to warrant locking the negotiators into a so-called "diplomatic tunnel" to force the talks over the finish line.

Rules of fair competition

Britain left the European Union on January 31, but Barnier and Frost have been locked in moths of inconclusive talks on a follow-on trade arrangement.

If no deal is reached, trade rules will revert to the bare bones of World Trade Organization regulations.

Both sides insist they are ready for this – and would prefer it to having to accept a bad deal – but experts forecast severe economic disruption.

Europe's three main concerns are agreeing on the rules of fair competition, how these rules will be policed, and securing access to UK waters for EU fishing fleets.

Britain wants to reassert sovereignty over its waters and refuse EU legal oversight over the deal – insisting it wants a simple trade deal of the kind the EU signed with Canada.

Brussels in turn stresses that Britain's economy is far more integrated with and closer to the EU's than Canada's, and that its single market must be protected from British backsliding.

Source: AFP