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PM downbeat with admission any trade deal looks 'difficult'

Johnson says door is still open but agreement rests on EU 'seeing sense' and compromising

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Hands on: Prime Minister Boris Johnson during a visit to the Openreach L&D Training Centre in Bolton yesterday

Hands on: Prime Minister Boris Johnson during a visit to the Openreach L&D Training Centre in Bolton yesterday

PA

Negotiator Michel Barnier

Negotiator Michel Barnier

AP

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Hands on: Prime Minister Boris Johnson during a visit to the Openreach L&D Training Centre in Bolton yesterday

Political leaders north and south of the Irish border have repeated the need for a trade deal with the EU as Brussels' chief negotiator Michel Barnier said there are "just a few hours" left in the Brexit talks.

In a downbeat assessment of the state of play, Boris Johnson yesterday warned the prospect of agreeing a deal with the EU is "looking difficult".

The Prime Minister said the onus is on the bloc seeing "sense" and making a compromise or the transition period will end on December 31 without a deal, which he acknowledged would be "difficult" in the short-term.

Mr Johnson reiterated "no sensible government" could agree to a treaty that does not give the nation control of its laws and waters, two major sticking points for No 10 in the negotiations as the brinkmanship continued.

The PM said: "Our door is open, we'll keep talking, but I have to say things are looking difficult.

"There's a gap that needs to be bridged, the UK has done a lot to try and help and we hope that our EU friends will see sense and come to the table with something themselves, because that's really where we are."

The issue was also discussed at yesterday's virtual meeting of the North South Ministerial Council.

First Minister Arlene Foster said: "We all agree that the best way forward is to have an agreement on the future relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union. I think that's very important. That is the one point of unanimity on Brexit I would say, but it's something that I think you can take as very clear."

Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill added: "It's obvious we obviously want to see a deal and I welcome the confirmation and clarity around the (Northern Ireland) protocol that's been achieved and hopefully that is positive mood music that leads us into an arrangement that finds a positive outcome, because I don't think anybody wants to see a no-deal scenario."

Taoiseach Micheal Martin said "very significant difficulties" remain in talks between the EU and UK, particularly in relation to fisheries.

Mr Martin said: "If we get a substantive future relationship agreement between the UK and the EU that would make life much, much easier for all of us and particularly would give certainty and clarity to businesses and for workers north and south."

He said a deal would present opportunities for everyone on the island of Ireland.

"Above all, it would give certainty and clarity to businesses on the island of Ireland, for workers on the island of Ireland in terms of their future and without question a deal would reduce very significantly any damage and disruption that would clearly arise from a no deal," he added.

Tanaiste Leo Varadkar said: "We're all agreed that a free trade agreement between the UK and EU is to our advantage and is in the interests of business and workers and farmers and fishermen north and south. So we will be using any influence we have to try to secure that agreement over the next couple of days."

Earlier, Mr Barnier told the European Parliament that the two sides now stand at the "moment of truth" with a "very narrow" path to a breakthrough.

"We have very little time remaining, just a few hours, to work through these negotiations in useful fashion if we want this agreement to enter into force on January 1," he said. "There is a chance of getting an agreement but the path to such an agreement is very narrow."

He said he was being "frank with you and open and sincere" when he said that he was unable to state the result from the "last home straight of negotiations".

The EU set the latest deadline that an agreement must be ready by Sunday night in order to have enough time for MEPs to ratify it, while the House of Commons has been warned it may need to hastily return from Christmas recess to vote on a deal. However, commission spokesman Eric Mamer said yesterday there is "no official deadline for finishing".

After her call with the Prime Minister, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen acknowledged "big differences" remained between the two sides and stressed that "bridging them will be very challenging".

Belfast Telegraph


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