Boris Johnson and Ursula von der Leyen have kicked off Brexit talks in an effort to restart stalled negotiations on the future of the relationship between the UK and the European Union.
The virtual meeting between the UK prime minister and European Commission president comes after several rounds of talks made little progress in recent weeks.
Current arrangements, which preserve much of the UK-EU relationship from before the UK left the bloc in January, will come to an end when the post-Brexit transition period ends on December 31.
The deadline for a decision on whether to extend this period runs out at the end of June, but the UK has repeatedly ruled out a prolongation.
The UK’s chief negotiator David Frost retweeted a statement from the prime minister’s office, adding that he was “very pleased” that Johnson, Von der Leyen and the presidents of the European Council and European Parliament were to meet on Monday via video link.
In a separate tweet, Frost reiterated the British stance opposing an extension to the transition period, by republishing a statement to that effect from April.
Many politicians and business leaders in the UK and Europe have called for the negotiations to be prolonged, especially in the light of the pandemic which has dominated attention on all sides.
New research revealed that more than half of the nearly 2,000 British people surveyed by pollster Ipsos MORI said the UK should request an extension to the transition period so the government could focus on COVID-19.
The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier, regretting the deadlocked state of talks, has repeatedly accused the UK of failing to respect commitments made in the divorce deal.
The EU insists that the UK must respect the “level playing field” in future competition and that an agreement on fishing must form part of an overall deal. The UK dissents on the EU’s interpretation and insists on sovereignty and freedom to determine its own rules.
Rejecting accusations that the EU is being intransigent, Barnier said this week that his mandate from the EU27 countries was “sufficiently flexible to find compromises” with the UK.
Analysts are highly sceptical, however, that this high-level meeting will deliver any kind of breakthrough.
“The best-case scenario would see the pair agree in general terms on a landing zone for the future relationship, giving the negotiations fresh impetus. The worst case would see Johnson collapse the talks in an attempt to distract from domestic criticism over his government’s handling of COVID-19,” Sam Lowe, senior research fellow at the Centre for European Reform think tank, said on Friday.
He stressed that neither of these scenarios will decide the eventual outcome of the negotiation and that although “the route towards an agreeable compromise exists”, neither side is likely “to commit to finding it until later in the year, when the economic, and political, consequences of the alternative become significantly more tangible.”
Georgina Wright, senior researcher at the Institute for Government, also thinks a deal is possible but is unlikely to be reached anytime soon.
“[The] UK wants a deal by the summer (to allow businesses time to prepare), EU can afford to go until 31 October. Both options look ambitious at the moment, she wrote.