Boris Johnson has put Britain on course for a no-deal Brexit, claiming it is now “very likely”, as it emerged that Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel have flatly rejected his appeal for direct talks.
In a pointed toughening up of his language, the prime minister claimed Britain was on a path to leaving the single market and customs union without any trade or security agreement, describing it as a potentially “wonderful” outcome.
Earlier in the day the European commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, had similarly warned about the trajectory of the talks, telling EU leaders she believed there was a greater chance of a no-deal exit than an agreement.
The two sides remain at loggerheads over the biggest stumbling block of how to maintain fair competition once the UK is able to set its own standards and regulations from the end of the transition period in three weeks’ time.
It emerged on Friday that Downing Street had sought to open bilateral talks with Merkel and Macron on Monday, before a telephone call with Von der Leyen the same day, but that both leaders rebuffed his advances, saying the commission was their negotiator.
A No 10 spokesman said: “I would point you to the PM’s words yesterday where he said he would go the extra mile to reach a fair deal, including going to Brussels, Paris or to Berlin.”
Speaking to reporters on a visit to Blyth in Northumberland, a day after telling the cabinet to prepare for a no-deal exit, Johnson said the talks were not progressing.
“I’ve got to tell that from where I stand now, here in Blyth, it is looking very, very likely that we will have to go for a solution that I think would be wonderful for the UK, and we’d be able to do exactly what we want from January,” he said. “It obviously would be different from what we’d set out to achieve but I have no doubt this country can get ready and, as I say, come out on World Trade [Organization] terms.”
The two sides have said they will make a “firm decision” about the prospects of a deal by the end of Sunday. During a 10-minute briefing at the end of an all-night summit of EU heads of state and government on Friday morning, Von der Leyen refused to put a percentage on the chances of agreement but told leaders there was a “higher probability for no deal than deal”.
Macron denied that he was over-reaching with his demands over fishing access, after being asked by reporters in Brussels. “I’m not asking to have my cake and eat it, no,” Macron said. “All I want is a cake that’s worth its weight. Because I won’t give up my share of it either.”
Germany’s foreign minister, Heiko Maas, said the EU would be open to negotiating beyond the Sunday deadline if there were signs of agreement. “In the end, the talks will not fail because a few days more are needed,” he said. “We believe that an agreement is difficult but still possible. We will keep negotiating … as long as a crack of the window is open.”
Italy’s prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, said the EU should not “yield” to British pressure over the level playing field provisions in any deal, warning that the bloc should prepare for a “hard Brexit”.
The commission president and the Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte, sought to tackle head-on Johnson’s claim that Brussels was seeking to force the UK to keep in lock-step with EU standards, “kind of a bit like twins”.
Von der Leyen said zero tariff access to British exporters depended on products being made to a similar standard as European goods. But she added that this was “not to say that we would require the UK to follow us every time we decide to raise our level of ambition”.
She went on: “For example in the environmental field, they would remain free sovereign, if you wish, to decide what they want to do – we would simply adapt the conditions for access to our market according to the decision of the UK and this would apply vice versa.”
The comments suggested that the EU was retaining the right to hit Britain with automatic tariffs but Rutte later described Von der Leyen’s comments as a “clear step” towards trying to find common ground. He also told reporters that there would be no automatic application of tariffs on British exports to the EU should the UK diverge in environmental, labour and social standards, a sticking point raised by Johnson.
“If the UK will deviate too much from the standards on some products in the EU, that you need have to have a structured dialogue on how to avoid those differences in standards,” he said. “That has nothing to do with sovereignty. Because everybody in the world is having these discussions with other countries where you have small or big trading blocs. He is sovereign, he is free, we are all free. This has to do with the practicalities of the internal market.
“I would not phrase it like a concession but it’s a clear step because what you obviously would like as the EU is dynamic alignment so that when we change they change. That is when Boris Johnson mentioned ‘the twins’. The twin brother doing the same as I am doing. But that’s not what we ask of him. That I could understand as a concern in terms of sovereignty.
“But what we do need to have is when there are too many differences in standards, applying the regulations etc, so there is an unfair advantage for companies in Europe towards the UK or from the UK towards Europe, then … in the spirit of managed divergence, you need to have this process laid out on how you deal with that. And that has nothing to do with trying to undercut UK sovereignty.”
An EU official said the Brexit negotiations were proving difficult in the final days. “Negotiations resuming today,” the official added. “To be seen by Sunday whether a deal is possible.”
Johnson told his cabinet on Thursday that the government needed to ready itself for a no-deal exit given the terms on offer from Brussels.
On Friday morning, the culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, said he believed there remained “a significant possibility” that a deal could be secured, and that the two sides were “90% of the way there”.