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EU top official sees ‘progress’ in post-Brexit talks

BRUSSELS (AP) — The European Union’s top official said Thursday there’s been “substantial progress on many issues” in post-Brexit talks, just as British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said a no-deal outcome seemed “very likely” — with only two weeks to go before a potentially chaotic split.

Speaking after a phone conversation with Johnson, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen also warned that bridging big differences, in particular on fisheries, “will be very challenging.”

Downing Street issued a statement underlining that the negotiations are “now in a serious situation.”

“The Prime Minister underlined that … time was very short and it now looked very likely that agreement would not be reached unless the EU position changed substantially,” the statement said.

Von der Leyen said negotiations will continue on Friday.

Over the past few days, hopes have risen about the prospects of a breakthrough, most notably after the pair held their previous talks on Sunday.

However, everyone concerned knows there really is very little time left for the remaining differences to be ironed out.

READ MORE: Will Brexit lead to an orderly departure from the European Union?

Johnson echoed Von der Leyen’s concerns on fisheries following their conversation.

“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,” Downing Street said.

“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,” the statement said. “The EU’s position in this area was simply not reasonable and if there was to be an agreement it needed to shift significantly.”

Earlier, the European Parliament issued a three-day ultimatum earlier to negotiators to strike a trade deal if they are to be in a position to ratify an agreement by the end of the year, when the U.K. leaves the EU’s tariff-free single market and customs union. European lawmakers said they will need to have the terms of any deal in front of them by late Sunday if they are to organize a special gathering before the end of the year.

It’s the latest seeming deadline over the past few months, but each time it is reached, the negotiators find a way to carry on the discussions.

Though the U.K. left the EU on Jan. 31, it remains within the bloc’s tariff-free single market and customs union until Dec. 31. A failure to reach a deal would likely lead to chaos on the borders at the start of 2021 as tariffs and other impediments to trade are enacted by both sides.

A trade deal would ensure there are no tariffs and quotas on trade in goods between the two sides, but there would still be technical costs, partly associated with customs checks and non-tariff barriers on services.

“Good progress, but last stumbling blocks remain,” the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, tweeted Thursday after briefing leaders in the European Parliament about the state of the talks.

The conference of presidents of the Parliament’s political groups said it is ready to organize a plenary session by the end of the month, but on condition that “an agreement is reached by midnight” on Dec. 20.

If a deal comes later, it could only be ratified in 2021, as the parliament wouldn’t have enough time to debate the agreement before that.

“We give until Sunday to Boris Johnson to make a decision,” said Dacian Ciolos, president of the Renew Europe group in the European Parliament. “The uncertainty hanging over citizens and businesses as a result of U.K. choices becomes intolerable.”

Britain’s Parliament must also approve any Brexit deal and the Christmas break adds to the timing complications. Lawmakers are due to be on vacation from Friday until Jan. 5, but the government has said they can be called back on 48 hours’ notice to approve an agreement if one is struck.

Michael Gove, a senior minister in the British government, said that despite some recent progress, significant issues remained over business regulations, how to resolve disputes and on fisheries, and that as a result the talks probably won’t lead to a deal.

“I think, regrettably, the chances are more likely that we won’t secure an agreement,” he said. “So at the moment less than 50%.”

Though both sides would suffer economically from a failure to secure a trade deal, most economists think the British economy would take a greater hit, at least in the near-term, as it is relatively more reliant on trade with the EU than vice versa.

Both sides have said they would try to mitigate the impact of no-deal, but most experts think that whatever short-term measures are put in place, the disruptions to trade will be immense.

“The Prime Minister repeated that little time was left,” Downing Street concluded. “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.”

Pan Pylas contributed from London.