U.K., EU Leaders Extend Marathon Brexit Talks

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U.K., EU Leaders Extend Marathon Brexit Talks

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson met with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on Wednesday, when they originally agreed to end Brexit talks on Sunday.

Photo: Xinhua/Zuma Press

BRUSSELS—The U.K. and European Union agreed “to go the extra mile” and keep negotiating over a new economic and security relationship, after previously saying they would decide by Sunday whether to call off the talks.

Britain, which left the EU on Jan. 31, remains part of the bloc’s economic and security arrangements until the end of the year, and negotiators are striving to find agreement on managing their relationship from the new year.

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The decision to keep talking came after British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen spoke by telephone midday Sunday. A dinner meeting between them on Wednesday night ended with their both professing pessimism about the likelihood of getting a deal. They set Sunday as the day they would decide whether talks were worth pursuing.

A joint statement from the two leaders didn’t give any indication the talks had made progress, though officials from both sides said the negotiations had been intensive, and some were hopeful a deal could now be struck. Talks will continue through Sunday.

“Despite the exhaustion after almost a year of negotiations, despite the fact that deadlines have been missed over and over we think it is responsible at this point to go the extra mile,” the joint statement said.

“We have accordingly mandated our negotiators to continue the talks and to see whether an agreement can even at this late stage be reached.”

An agreement would reduce, though not eliminate, significant border disruption on Jan. 1, affecting trade valued at close to $900 billion a year, along with personal and business travel. Long lines of trucks have already built up at some English Channel ports, in part because businesses are stockpiling ahead of the new year.

There is a long way to go in the talks and only a high-level political movement could break the logjam, British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said earlier Sunday.

“There is definitely a way out, it’s just whether there is the political will on the EU side to accept that we will not be treated differently from any self-respecting independent economy in the world,” he told Sky News.

Spain’s foreign minister, Arancha González, said on Sunday that she couldn’t see why a deal to manage the two sides’ interdependence couldn’t be settled, saying failure to reach a deal during the Covid-19 pandemic would create a “double whammy” for both sides.

The remaining differences relate to two main areas. The first is the so-called level playing field: the EU’s wish to ensure the U.K. doesn’t undercut European companies by moving to lower environmental, labor and social standards or by freely subsidizing companies. The second is the question of fisheries and the access of EU boats to British waters.

The two sides have been talking about the extent to which one side could impose selective tariffs on the other in case they diverge from their agreement over the level playing field. Mr. Raab suggested that a deal could be done if such tariffs were narrow and not “a nuclear-style type reaction.”

The U.K.’s border with Ireland has been a major sticking point since Britain started negotiating its exit from the European Union. WSJ’s Jason Douglas traveled to the country’s only land frontier to understand why the issue is so divisive. Video: George Downs; Illustration: Jaden Urbi/Soarscape (Originally Published Oct. 15, 2019)

Write to Laurence Norman at laurence.norman@wsj.com and Stephen Fidler at stephen.fidler@wsj.com

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