No-deal Brexit is most likely scenario, says Ursula von der Leyen

Ursula von der Leyen

A no-deal Brexit is more probable than finding agreement on fishing and “level playing field” competition rules, Ursula von der Leyen warned European Union leaders this morning.

In a downbeat assessment after an all-night EU summit dominated by haggling over climate change targets, the European Commission president said that the prospects of finding a trade and fishing deal this weekend were diminishing.

“I will not give percentage odds but there is higher probability for no-deal than a deal,” she told EU leaders in a discussion that only lasted ten to 15 minutes.

The former German defence minister, who has taken command of the EU negotiating team under Michel Barnier in recent weeks, said that it would be seen by Sunday whether a deal was possible.

Her comments followed Boris Johnson’s warning last night that Britain should prepare for the end of the Brexit transition period without an agreement. He said it was vital that “everyone gets ready” for the no-deal option.

“Positions remain apart on fundamental issues,” Mrs von der Leyen said after the summit. “Our negotiators are working; we will decide on Sunday whether we have the conditions for an agreement or not. One way or another in less than three weeks it will be new beginnings for old friends.”

Last night the prime minister said that he had the cabinet’s very strong backing in rejecting the “deal on the table” and that leaving the EU’s single market and customs union without agreement was probable.

“I do think we need to be very, very clear, there is now a strong possibility, a strong possibility, that we will have a solution that is much more like an Australian relationship with the EU than a Canadian relationship with the EU,” he said. Unlike Canada, Australia does not have a trade deal with Europe.

Malcolm Turnbull, the former Australian prime minister, warned the UK to “be careful what you wish for” before leaving the EU with an “Australian-style deal”.

“There are very big barriers to Australian exports of agricultural products in particular,” he told BBC Question Time. “There’s a lot of friction in the system in terms of services.”

Australians “would not regard our trade relationship with Europe as being a satisfactory one”, he added. “Be careful what you wish for in Australia. Australia’s relationship with the EU is not one from a trade point of view that Britain, I think, would want.”

Only two EU leaders spoke in response to Mrs von der Leyen this morning after a marathon summit that had lasted over 20 hours with only short breaks from horsetrading over the burden of climate change targets and next year’s Brussels budget.

Pedro Sánchez, the Spanish prime minister, said that in the event of a no-deal exit from the transition period the EU needed to stick to the same political message. Micheál Martin, the Irish leader, lamented a “big loss for all: UK, Ireland and EU” if talks break down.

“That’s the prevailing mood right now,” he said after the summit. “People recognise the enormous challenges that remain now in terms of pulling off a deal. Suffice to say that people feel and believe across the member states that this is going to be a very challenging task.”

Mrs von der Leyen said that she had “repeatedly made clear” to Mr Johnson over dinner in Brussels on Wednesday that “the principle of fair competition”, requiring Britain to maintain equivalent levels of standards, was a deal-breaker for the EU side.

“It is only fair that competitors to our own enterprises face the same conditions in our own market,” she said. “But this is not to say that we would require the UK to follow us every time we decide to raise our level of ambition, for example in the environmental field. They would remain free sovereigns. We would simply adapt the conditions for access to our market according to the decision of the UK and this would apply vice-versa.”

On talks over access for the European fishing fleet to British waters, she said: “We haven’t yet found the solutions to bridge our differences. We understand the UK aspires to control its waters. The UK must, on the other hand, understand the legitimate expectations of EU fishing fleets.”

Mr Johnson issued an explicit challenge to President Macron of France and Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, to intervene to salvage a deal.

“What I’ve said to our negotiators is that we’ve got to keep going, and we’ll go the extra mile, and we will,” he said. “And I will go to Brussels, I will go to Paris, I will go to Berlin, I will go to wherever to try and get this home and get a deal.”

President Macron hit back at diplomatic briefings that he was destabilising talks by threatening to veto a deal.

“We have a negotiator, a firm strategy. That means we have had a list of what is acceptable and what is not since the very beginning on fishing, energy, rules of fair competition which defend the integrity of the common market,” he said.

“It’s normal that in negotiations where there’s a lot of people involved there are rumours, noises, fire and counterfire.”

Lisa Nandy, the shadow foreign secretary, said that the government had “lost the plot” over the Brexit negotiations. “We are watching what is happening in negotiations with an increasing sense that the government has just lost the plot,” she told the Today programme on BBC Radio 4.