UK-EU trade talks 'paused' with deal still elusive

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European Commission's Head of Task Force for Relations with the United Kingdom Michel Barnier arrives at the Conference Centre in London, Friday, Dec. 4, 2020. With less than one month to go before the U.K. exits the EU's economic orbit, talks are continuing, and U.K. officials have said this is the last week to strike a deal. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)

LONDON – A week of intense trade talks between Britain and the European Union ended in stalemate Friday, with negotiators stepping back while politicians decide whether major differences can be bridged to avoid a messy, economically disruptive rupture in less than a month.

EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier and his British counterpart, David Frost, said they had agreed to “pause” negotiations while they brief the two sides' political leaders. They said British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen will discuss the state of play on Saturday.

“After one week of intense negotiation in London, the two chief negotiators agreed today that the conditions for an agreement are not met, due to significant divergences on level playing field, governance and fisheries,” Frost and Barnier said in a joint statement .

Talks have seesawed between progress and setbacks all week, as Barnier, Frost and their teams holed up in a London conference center, fueled by deliveries of sandwiches and pizza.

British Business Secretary Alok Sharma said earlier Friday that talks were “in a difficult phase,” while France warned it could veto any agreement it didn’t like.

U.K. officials briefed media outlets that the EU had set back negotiations by making last-minute demands — an allegation the bloc denied.

The U.K. left the EU early this year, but remains part of the 27-nation bloc’s economic embrace during an 11-month transition as the two sides try to negotiate a new free-trade deal to take effect Jan. 1. Any deal must be approved by lawmakers in Britain and the EU before year’s end.

Talks have dragged on as one deadline after another has slipped by. First, the goal was a deal by October, then by mid-November. On Sunday, Britain said the negotiations were in their final week.