Brexit: 'Substantial progress' made in talks but big differences remain, says Ursula von der Leyen

  • ITV News Political Editor Robert Peston gives an update

The UK and European Union have made “substantial progress” in reaching a post-Brexit trade deal – but “big differences remain”, Brussels’ top official has said.

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said in a statement following a call with Boris Johnson that bridging the outstanding issues will be “very challenging”.

Negotiations between the UK and EU will continue on Friday, she confirmed, but time is running out to reach a deal with just a fortnight until the end of the transition period.

After the 7pm call – which was not expected to be a breakthrough moment – Mrs von der Leyen said: “We welcomed substantial progress on many issues. “However, big differences remain to be bridged, in particular on fisheries. Bridging them will be very challenging. Negotiations will continue tomorrow.”

Mr Johnson told the Commission president that it looked “very likely” a deal would not be agreed unless the EU position changed “substantially”, Number 10 said. He urged the bloc to move on fisheries and said some “fundamental areas” remained difficult despite a narrowing of the gap on the “level playing field”. A Downing Street spokeswoman said: “The Prime Minister underlined that the negotiations were now in a serious situation. Time was very short and it now looked very likely that agreement would not be reached unless the EU position changed substantially. “He said that we were making every effort to accommodate reasonable EU requests on the level playing field, but even though the gap had narrowed some fundamental areas remained difficult. “On fisheries he stressed that the UK could not accept a situation where it was the only sovereign country in the world not to be able to control access to its own waters for an extended period and to be faced with fisheries quotas which hugely disadvantaged its own industry.

Fishing remains one of the key points of contention in the Brexit negotiations Credit: Danny Lawson/PA

“The EU’s position in this area was simply not reasonable and if there was to be an agreement it needed to shift significantly. “The Prime Minister repeated that little time was left. He said that, if no agreement could be reached, the UK and the EU would part as friends, with the UK trading with the EU on Australian-style terms. The leaders agreed to remain in close contact.” Chief negotiators Lord Frost and Michel Barnier have been holding discussions in Brussels all week aimed at breaking the deadlock on key issues which have plagued the talks for months. They include fishing rights, the “level playing field” to ensure neither side can unfairly compete with the other on environmental standards, workers’ rights or state subsidies, and the legal mechanisms to govern any deal.

Brexit trade talks - the sticking points at a glance:

- Fishing rights: The UK wants total control over its own fishing waters after the Brexit transition period ends, with a 12 mile exclusion zone around the British Isles banning all foreign vessels. The EU wants the UK to stick to the Common Fisheries Policy, an EU agreement which gives member nations the rights to fish in European waters - more here. - Level Playing Field: This is a concept all EU nations agree to, which ensures member nations cannot undercut others by setting their own rules on issues such as the environment, taxation and state aid. The EU says a zero-tariff trade deal is dependent on the UK agreeing to a level playing field. The UK disagrees, saying a fundamental aspect of Brexit is that the UK will be able to set its own rules. - Governance of a deal: It's likely that any trade deal will eventually result in disputes. The EU wants the European Court of Justice to be the final authority in ruling over disputes. The UK says the ECJ should have no role and final decisions should be made by a bespoke arbiter. But the statements from both sides suggested that while further discussions would be held, substantial movement on the key issues had not been made.

Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove, who has been in charge of the Government’s no-deal planning, said earlier on Thursday that the chances of an agreement remained “less than 50%”. He told the Commons Brexit Committee the “most likely outcome” was that the current transition period would end on December 31 without a deal. “I think, regrettably, the chances are more likely that we won’t secure an agreement. So at the moment less than 50%,” Mr Gove said. He also said the Government will not seek to negotiate a fresh trade agreement with the EU next year if they cannot reach a deal before the end of the Brexit transition period.