Brexit breakthrough? Trade talks on 'path to an agreement', says EU chief Ursula von der Leyen

Boris Johnson and Ursula von der Leyen met recently in Brussels in a last-ditch bid to salvage a trade deal, but the meeting ended without a breakthrough.

It appears there may have been a breakthrough on post-Brexit trade talks between the EU and UK, with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen saying "there is a path to an agreement now".

Despite conceding that the route to a trade deal is "very narrow", the message from Ms von der Leyen signals a change in tone from what had previously been a pessimistic outlook from both sides.

She said: "I cannot tell you whether there will be a deal or not, but I can tell you there is a path to an agreement now.

"The path may be narrow but it is there. It is therefore our responsibility to continue trying."

She said the two sticking points of fisheries and level playing field agreements remain, but "the good news is that we have found a way forward on most issues.”

It was only on Tuesday that Boris Johnson's spokesperson said a no deal "remains most likely outcome".

On Wednesday afternoon Downing Street said leaving the Brexit transition period without a trade deal remains the most likely outcome but noted that "we have made some progress".

Number 10 said "time is now in short supply to reach an agreement" but talks will "continue over the coming days".

It said Parliament will go into recess, as planned, on Thursday but MPs and peers could be recalled over the festive period to "legislate for a deal if one is secured".

"That recall could be as early as next week."

The Number 10 statement added: "Parliament has long shown it can move at pace and the country would expect nothing less.

"The process for recall will align with the process for finalising the legislation for a deal, if one is secured, and no time will be lost."

The prime minister's official spokesman told reporters earlier that "some progress" had been made "in some areas but it still remains that there are some significant gaps".

"Our position is still that we want to reach an FTA (free trade agreement) but it is still the case that the most likely outcome is still leaving on Australia terms."

During the Downing Street press conference on coronavirus, Prime Minister Johnson was asked if it was still his view that no deal was the most likely Brexit outcome for the UK.

Mr Johnson replied: "On where we get to with the EU, well, again, that is very much a matter for our friends, they know what the parameters are and we've just got to make sure that we control our laws and control our own waters."

He added: "There's a good deal there to be done, but if not, WTO, Australia terms it is and as I say we will prosper mightily on those terms as well."

Mr Johnson and Ms von der Leyen spoke on Sunday in a last-ditch bid to salvage a trade deal, but the call ended without a breakthrough.

Ms von der Leyen said the coming days will be "decisive" as the clock ticks down until the end of the month when the current arrangements between the two sides expire.

MEPs are concerned that a deal could be implemented provisionally before they get the chance to vote on it.

Ms von der Leyen said: "The clock puts us all in a very difficult situation, not least this Parliament and its right to exercise democratic scrutiny and ratification."

In the UK, measures are being drawn up for Parliament to sit for extra days leading up to Christmas, suggesting there may be hopes that a deal is on the horizon.

Ms von der Leyen suggested the resolution of the difficulties over fishing may prove extremely difficult.

But she indicated that progress has been made on measures to prevent either side unfairly competing with the other by cutting standards or using state subsidies.

On the issue of fisheries, which has a symbolic importance on both sides outweighing its wider economic significance, the negotiations remain "very difficult", she said.

News of the president's comments were tweeted by European Commission spokesperson on EU/UK negotiations, Daniel Ferrie.

The EU wants the UK to continue granting access to its trawlers to fish in its waters, while British vessels often depend on demand in EU markets for their catch.

Ms von der Leyen said: "We do not question the UK's sovereignty on its own waters.

"But we ask for predictability and stability for our fishermen and our fisherwomen.

"And, in all honesty, it sometimes feels that we will not be able to resolve this question.

"But we must continue to try to find a solution and it is the only responsible and right course of action."

Prime Minister Johnson has repeatedly said the UK would "prosper mightily" if it was forced to leave the European Union without a trade deal - an arrangement he often refers to as "Australian terms".

But former Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull told ITV's Good Morning Britain that leaving the EU with the same arrangements as Australia would have a "significant impact" on the UK.

"We want to have a deal with the EU and we have been negotiating a free trade agreement with the European Union for several years now but it's a slow process."

He added: "If you were to be put in the same position as Australia you would be facing tariffs and trade barriers that would have a very significant impact.

"That's why getting some kind of deal done this week is so critical," he added.

On Tuesday Prime Minister's Johnson's official spokesperson told a Westminster briefing a trade agreement cannot come "at any cost" - and that any agreement must respect the independence and sovereignty of the UK.

He added: "Ending the transition period on Australian-style terms remained the most likely outcome".