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Johnson jets to Brussels in bid to save Brexit deal

By AFP - Dec 09,2020 - Last updated at Dec 09,2020

BRUSSELS — Prime Minister Boris Johnson was headed for Brussels on Wednesday, with hopes for a post-Brexit trade deal hanging on crisis talks with EU chief Ursula von der Leyen.

Johnson's dash back to the city where he made his name as an EU-bashing newspaper reporter marks an almost final chance of a breakthrough before Britain leaves the EU single market.

"A good deal is still there to be done," Johnson told the UK parliament before setting off for Brussels, while insisting Britain would "prosper mightily" with or without agreement.

Talks are blocked over the issue of fair competition, with Britain refusing to accept a mechanism that would allow the EU to respond swiftly if UK and EU business rules diverge over time and put European firms at a disadvantage.

"Our friends in the EU are currently insisting that if they pass a new law in the future, with which we in this country do not comply, they want the automatic right... to punish us and to retaliate," Johnson said.

EU Negotiator Michel Barnier and his UK counterpart David Frost have narrowed the gaps over eight months but London insists it will reclaim full sovereignty at the end of the year after half-a-century of close economic integration.

If Britain leaves the EU single market in three weeks without a follow-on Free Trade Agreement the damage caused by delays to travellers and freight at its borders with the EU will be compounded by import tariffs.

In Berlin, Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel said there was still a chance for a deal.

But she warned: "We must not endanger the integrity of the common market."

Merkel said Britain would have to accept that as the UK and EU legal systems move apart after Brexit there must be a way to ensure a "level playing field for tomorrow and the day after tomorrow".

"Otherwise we'd end up with unfair conditions for competition which we can't ask of our companies," she said.

Johnson spoke by telephone to Von der Leyen on Monday to secure the last chance dinner invitation after negotiations between Barnier and Frost broke off without agreement.

He will travel by plane and arrive late Wednesday for talks at the Berlaymont, the EU headquarters building he once wrongly reported was scheduled for demolition when he covered Brussels as a newspaper journalist in the early 1990s.

But officials on both sides expressed pessimism ahead of the last-ditch encounter.

Barnier, meanwhile, gave a downbeat briefing to European ministers ahead of Thursday's EU leaders summit, then tweeted: "We will never sacrifice our future for the present. Access to our market comes with conditions."

A senior Europan source said the question was whether the EU would respond automatically and unilaterally if commercial standards diverge, or whether they would leave space to negotiate.

"The sticking point in the negotiations is the equivalence clause requested by the EU to avoid distortions of competition if the UK refuses to align itself over time with EU tax, social and environmental standards," he said.

But a UK government source said: "If we can make progress at a political level it may allow Lord Frost and his team to resume negotiations over the coming days."

On Thursday, EU leaders including Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron will be in Brussels for a two-day summit dominated by an EU budget dispute, but Johnson is not expected to meet them.

In recent weeks several member states, led by France, have expressed concerned that Germany and Von der Leyen's European Commission have been too ready to compromise with London.

Even as London and Brussels try to carve out a new trading relationship, the separate and politically vexed issue of Northern Ireland has loomed in the background.

Northern Ireland will have the UK's only land border with the bloc from next year, and that border is meant to stay open as part of the 1998 peace deal that ended three decades of violence over British rule.

Johnson's government had infuriated Dublin and Brussels by introducing a UK internal market bill that would override the EU Withdrawal Agreement, which bound London to respect Northern Ireland's unique status.

But some measure of trust was restored on Tuesday, when British minister Michael Gove and European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic said an agreement had been made to cut the offending clauses

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