Brexit trade deal could be done ‘in days’ – UK Cabinet hopeful of agreement in next week

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Negotiating teams led by the EU’s Michel Barnier and the UK’s David Frost have been meeting for further crunch talks in London throughout this week. But they are not expected to equate to a significant breakthrough despite progress needing to be made soon if a new agreement is to be in place when the current arrangements expire in a little under two months. The EU wants a deal in place by mid-November so it can be ratified by leaders throughout the bloc by the time the UK leaves the customs union and single market.

If no deal can be agreed between the two sides, trade between the UK and EU will be subject to potentially huge tariffs set out by the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

Several stumbling blocks still remain, including the “level playing field” measures aimed at preventing unfair competition on issues including state subsidies, the ongoing row over fishing rights, and how any UK-EU deal will be governed.

But a senior member of Mr Johnson’s Government and Cabinet team has offered hope the UK could agree a post-Brexit trade deal with the EU as soon as next week.

Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick told BBC Radio: “We hope that in the days ahead, admittedly time is short, but in the days ahead both sides will be able to reach agreement and the EU will show some further flexibility in those respects if it can.”

Chancellor Rishi Sunak also offered hope, insisting progress is being made in talks between the UK and EU, and that a deal is there to be done.

He told Sky News: “Both sides need to be constructive – that’s happening – you know there is a deal to be done that requires that good will and cooperation.

“And I know people are working very hard at it.”

But Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove – who is in charge of preparations for a possible no deal Brexit scenario – struck a more downbeat note when addressing ministers in the House of Commons on Thursday.

He warned the EU needs to show “flexibility” to help secure a free trade agreement with Britain, particularly on Northern Ireland, where the free movement of goods must be maintained with the rest of the UK.

He told parliament: “The UK has already shown a great degree of flexibility in these negotiations, but it’s important also that the European Union shows flexibility too.

“It’s very important in the discussions that we have in the joint commission that we make sure that we implement the protocol on the future of Northern Ireland in a way which ensures that its people can continue to have unfettered access to the rest of the UK and in particular that we can maintain the flow of goods that’s so vital to the life of the province.”

Downing Street has continued to warn “significant gaps” remain between the UK and EU negotiating teams in post-Brexit trade talks, and warned “time is in short supply”.

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The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said on Thursday: “Talks are continuing in London and the negotiators are working hard to bridge the still significant gaps that remain.

“Time is in short supply and there are still significant gaps that remain.”

Irish Taoiseach Micheal Martin had earlier warned failure to agree a post-Brexit trade deal would be “very, very damaging all around”, would be “ruinous” for the UK, and that Ireland would suffer.

He also warned the UK needs to be “very careful that they do not do anything that could destabilise the politics of Northern Ireland”, and that a no deal outcome with the EU could lead to “tensions that are unnecessary”.

Mr Martin told the BBC: “We’ve all had a very significant shock to our economic system because of Covid-19 – the last thing we need now across all of our respective economies is a second major shock.”

But following the comments from the Taoiseach, downing Street strongly defended its negotiation position in trade talks with the EU. The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “We have been working hard throughout to get a deal but we’ve always said that it needs to be a deal that fully respects UK sovereignty, and that’s what we’re continuing to pursue.

“Right from the outset I don’t think we’ve been seeking anything that the EU hasn’t agreed to with other sovereign countries and we’re working hard and are continuing to work hard, but it is the case that significant gaps remain.”

He repeated Mr Johnson still intends for the UK to leave the EU without a trade deal if one is not agreed by the end of the transition period on December 31.

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