British and EU trade negotiating teams are still stuck communicating via video call after a member of Brussels’ team tested positive for coronavirus, as time runs out to clinch a deal.
Officials on both sides say they to get back to face to face negotiations sometime this week – but the disruption is such that neither side has yet been able to say when this will be possible.
Boris Johnson and Ursula von der Leyen are expected to speak on the telephone ahead of the weekend, as adherence to a supposed mid-November deadline for striking an accord becomes increasingly far-fetched.
Downing Street on Monday would not be drawn on suggestions that both sides could turn to a temporary deal to prevent the UK from crashing out of the single market on WTO rules at the end of the year.
Asked about the rumours from Brussels, under which difficult topics could be put to one side and finished next year, the prime minister’s spokesperson told reporters: “Our position hasn’t changed.”
Boris Johnson has repeatedly said he is prepared to take Britain out of the customs union without an agreement – a move that is expected to cause acute economic disruption on 31 December, when it will happen automatically if no alternative is found.
Speaking on Monday as videoconferences continued, Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, struck a familiar tone.
“After technical discussions this weekend, negotiations continue online today with David Frost and our teams,” he said.
“Time is short. Fundamental divergences still remain, but we are continuing to work hard for a deal.”
Despite a lack of serious movement on key issues for months, including in the most recent period of “intense” negotiations, there are still some optimists in the EU camp.
Speaking during a visit to Dublin’s port on Monday Irish premier Micheál Martin said he remained hopeful that the two negotiating teams could “pull one off” in time.
“I would be hopeful that by the end of this week we could see the outline of a deal,” the Taoiseach said, adding that it “remains to be seen”.
“I do sense that both negotiating teams, they’ve made progress, that’s the point,” he said.
“I think the presentation made last week by the President of the Commission was probably one of the more hopeful presentations made to date.”
Britain technically left the EU early in 2020, but remains in a transition period until 11pm on 31 December 2020. It is currently negotiating a trade agreement to govern relations with the bloc going forward.
Both sides say an agreement would need to have been sealed by the middle of November to be ratified in time for New Year, though some are optimistic the deadline could be flexed.