BORIS Johnson said today he was still "hopeful" of a Brexit deal being sealed but admitted the situation was "very difficult" and both teams were "a long way apart".
The PM will dash to Brussels this week for face-to-face talks with EU boss Ursula Von Der Leyen after both sides admitted a deal couldn't be reached at the moment.
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The PM and EU chief held a tense phonecall last night – their second in 48 hours – where both sides admitted talks had reached "the end of the road".
They are expected to meet on either Wednesday or Thursday in person – ahead of an EU summit on Thursday which could rubber stamp any agreement.
Asked whether he was hopeful of a Brexit deal, Boris Johnson told reporters at a London hospital on Tuesday: "I'm always hopeful… yes, I am very hopeful, but I've got to be honest with you I think the situation at the moment is very tricky."
He said the EU had to understand that the UK had left to "exercise democratic control over the way we do things".
He stressed: "We are a long way apart still.
"I will do my best to sort it out if we can.
But he promised that no matter what happened, there would be "great options ahead for our country" and people should know change is coming regardless of a deal.
He appeared to give another two days – until Wednesday as Michel Barnier has suggested – to try and get an agreement done.
Boris said: "We will see where we get to in the next two days- there are limits which no sensible independent country could go."
It came as:
- Michael Gove yesterday met with his counterpart in Brussels and offered to drop controversial parts of the Brexit laws if a deal was done – piling on pressure to seal an agreement
- But MPs voted to put the hated parts of the internal markets bill back in after a late night Commons vote
- The PM was speaking as he visited a hospital to see the rollout of the Covid-19 vaccine today
But last night a UK Government source said "no tangible progress" had been made during the negotiations, which they described as "looking very tricky", and said "this must now continue politically".
Talks could still collapse and leave both sides with No Deal, they warned.
The two side's senior negotiators were unable to forge a deal that was acceptable to Mr Johnson’s clear red lines and any hope of a breakthrough was now only at a leader’s level.
This morning EU politicians warned they won't "sacrifice" their people or jobs for a deal.
France's Clement Beaune isisted: "We make efforts and compromises, and we have said so to fishermen, but we will not sacrifice our fisheries and our fishermen. And the British know that."
He said that they were "a bit fed up" and warned again they could "reject it" if they did not agree with it.
Germany's Michael Roth added: "It is good that every effort is undertaken to find a sustainable and good solution. We want to reach a deal but not at any price."
In a joint statement published after their telephone exchange, Mr Johnson and Ms von der Leyen said: "As agreed on Saturday, we took stock today of the ongoing negotiations.
"We agreed that the conditions for finalising an agreement are not there, due to the remaining significant differences on three critical issues: level playing field, governance and fisheries.
"We asked our chief negotiators and their teams to prepare an overview of the remaining differences to be discussed in a physical meeting in Brussels in the coming days."
Mr Barnier reportedly told MEPs the deadline for the talks succeeding is Wednesday, but Downing Street said it was prepared to continue talks for "as long as we have time available".
Mr Johnson "cannot and will not accept the current terms” according to one insider as talks face the prospect of lasting another week.
“Anyone that thinks this is going to be some turn up and sign at that moment will be disappointed," another gloomy official involved said.
The Daily Mail reports Mr Barnier had already ambushed the UK by re-tabling old demands for the UK to respect all laws the EU might pass in the future.
The move would effectively bind Britain to EU laws, under the threat of huge tariffs if they were broken.
The two sides are now expected to draw up a list of the remaining differences between them ahead of the PM travelling to Brussels.
Some close to Mr Johnson say a breakthrough could still be a week away given the differences between the two sides and he may not travel to the continent until the weekend.
What are the sticking points in Brexit talks?
LEVEL PLAYING FIELD: Brussels wants a shared set rules and standards to ensure businesses in the UK do not have an unfair advantage over their competitors. The UK has said it won't lower its standards, but wants to be able to set its own rules.
GOVERNANCE: Who decides what happens if the terms of the deal are breached? The EU wants an European body to decide the terms, but the UK aren't keen on this and want an independent arbitrator to have the final say.
FISHING: The EU wants continued access to Britain's fishing waters after we leave. It's claimed Britain would be happy with a three year deal to phase out access, but the EU are pushing for ten. One of the key referendum claims was that Britain would be able to take back control of our borders – including fish – when we leave the EU.
And yesterday Dutch Foreign minister Stef Blok insisted that the talks could even carry on until Christmas or the New Year if they had to.
He said: "I think we should all — including myself — be available to conclude talks, including sometime between Christmas and New Year’s Eve if it has to be and if that leads to a good agreement."
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