Johnson to phone EU's Von der Leyen to 'take stock' of Brexit progress

Boris Johnson will phone EU commission chief Ursula von der Leyen today to ‘take stock’ of Brexit progress ahead of critical negotiations next week to avoid a No Deal

  • PM will call European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen on Saturday
  • Need to overcome ‘wide divergences’, according to each side’s top negotiators
  • Briefings between Mr Johnson and Ms Von der Leyen are crucial to pave the way
  • Mr Johnson says he is hopeful a deal can be struck in seven to ten days 

Boris Johnson will phone European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen today to ‘take stock’ of Brexit progress ahead of critical negotiations next week.

The Prime Minister and Ms Von der Leyen still need to overcome ‘wide divergences’ to avoid a No Deal, according to the top negotiators for Britain and the Bloc. 

Briefings between the two leaders are seen as key moments in the talks, with the last conversation in October seeing discussions ‘intensified’ before a fallout after the European Council meeting briefly derailed the negotiations. 

Mr Johnson said he hoped a deal could be concluded in the next seven to ten days.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson walks across Horse Guards Parade in London on Friday. He’ll call Ursula von der Leyen today for a Brexit chat ahead of crucial negotiations next week

European Commission President Ursula Von Der Leyen holds a press conference at the end of a European Council meeting focused on the coronavirus in Brussels on October 29

‘There’s a deal there to be done but if not, the country is very well prepared,’ he told Sky News yesterday.

UK chief negotiator Lord Frost was in the Belgian capital to negotiate face-to-face with his European Union counterpart Michel Barnier earlier this week.

Meetings between the pair are due to continue next week after both agreed there continued to be gaps in the UK and the bloc’s position.

After talks finished on Wednesday, Mr Barnier briefed MEPs and EU diplomats that there were ‘very serious divergences’ still.

He said the main stumbling blocks continued to be around the ‘level playing field’ aimed at preventing unfair competition on areas including state subsidies, fisheries policy and the governance of any deal.

Lord Frost, commenting afterwards, said progress had been made during two weeks of intensive talks but ‘wide divergences remain on some core issues’. 

Though the U.K. left the EU on January 31, it remains within the bloc’s tariff-free single market and customs union until the end of this year.

A trade deal would ensure there are no tariffs and quotas on trade in goods between the two sides, but there would still be technical costs, partly associated with customs checks and non-tariff barriers on services.

Progress on reaching even a bare-bones agreement has been slow. The two sides are far apart on key issues, such as fishing rights and business regulations. 

European Union chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier and British Prime Minister’s Europe adviser David Frost are seen at start of the first round of post -Brexit trade deal talks between the EU and the United Kingdom, in Brussels, Belgium on March 2

The outcome of the U.S. presidential election, though not connected directly, could have a bearing on the discussions.

President Donald Trump was a self-proclaimed supporter of Brexit and said he wanted to conclude a trade deal with the U.K. following reelection.

Should he lose, many analysts said it would raise the pressure on London to secure a trade deal with the EU.

Trump’s Democratic rival, former Vice President Joe Biden, has voiced worries about the impact of Brexit on the peace process on the island of Ireland.

Biden said he would seek to rebuild U.S. ties with the EU, were he to become president. 

It comes as building works are underway to convert a 27-acre site in Kent into a Brexit lorry park with space for 1,700 vehicles, with others planned at major ports. 

Work is underway to convert a 27-acre field into a post-Brexit lorry park, next to a 13th century church in the village of Sevington, Kent

Once built, the site, near Junction 10A of the M20 in Ashford, will be used for custom checks, but will be able to hold 2,000 lorries if there are delays at Dover 

Heavy machinery is currently digging up land at a field in Sevington, Kent, which will be used as a customs checking point, as well as an emergency holding park in the event of delays at English ports, including nearby Dover.

Ten proposed Brexit lorry park sites  

  • Ashford Waterbook (work underway)
  • Sevington Ashford (work underway)
  • Ebbsfleet International Station (work underway)
  • Thames Gateway
  • North Weald Airfield (work underway)
  • Birmingham (work underway)
  • Warrington (work underway) 
  • Holyhead (July)
  • South Wales (July)
  • Dover (July)

*Subject to securing planning permission

Locals are said to be ‘grumpy,’ over dust and mud kicked up by the development, but are thought to be more in favour of the site’s new use, compared to previous plans to build an Amazon warehouse. 

There are fears up to 7,000 HGVs could be left queuing on the English side of the Channel, should the Government fail to reach a trade agreement with the European Union by December 31.

But even if a deal is reached, a report published today predicts there will still be delays on January 1. 

By July 2021, the area’s main function will be a HMRC customs check centre if the Government plans come to fruition.

Thousands of people have backed a tongue-in-cheek campaign to name the facility after Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage. 

Despite construction getting underway at Sevington, along with sites in Ashford, Birmingham, Ebbsfleet, North Weald and Warrington, a bombshell report published earlier today warned of ‘significant’ disruption at the UK’s borders from New Year’s Day. 

Government spending watchdogs said there could be queues of up to 7,000 lorries waiting to cross the Channel from Dover.

Passenger traffic for Dover ferries and the Channel Tunnel could also suffer delays of up to two hours during January, with waiting times potentially worsening during 2021.

A view of the area near Sevington in Ashford, Kent, where the Government is developing the 27-acre site near the town

The National Audit Office said that although the Government had made progress updating customs systems and other infrastructure it still expected ‘widespread disruption’. 

The Government has plans for 10 post-Brexit sites, three of which still require full permission.

Ministers gave themselves powers to build in 29 local authorities across the country, stretching the likes of Devon and Kent and Devon in the South, to Liverpool and Hull in the North.

There are no plans to build in the other 19 sites not currently set out by the Government at this stage.

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