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Brexit: ‘Important day’ for trade deal talks as Michel Barnier cancels EU meeting

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Talks on a post-Brexit trade deal with the EU are at a “critical phase” as they go down to the wire in London.

Brussels’ chief negotiator Michel Barnier did not head back home on Friday morning as some expected, and a briefing he was meant to hold for EU diplomats was cancelled.

He was tight-lipped as he headed back in for a fresh day of discussions, only telling reporters it was an “important day”.

That signals a deal is still possible, after Sky News was told that Thursday’s talks “did not go well”.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s deputy spokesman admitted that “time is in very short supply” and “we’re at a very difficult point in the talks”.

Conversations have dragged on late into the evening several times this week, with sandwiches and takeaways seen being delivered.

With less than a month to go until the moment where the UK will either fall into a no-deal trading relationship with the EU or enter a new relationship, the pressure is on.

The UK left the EU on 31 January 2020 – but is in a “transition period” for the rest of the year and has followed many of the same rules and held on to the benefits of membership apart from political representation.

That was designed to limit disruption, so citizens and businesses only had to prepare for one change on 1 January 2021.

But both sides said they wanted these negotiations over by mid-October and constant talk of a pressing deadline has seen discussions pushed closer to the cliff edge.

Charles Michel, head of the European Council, did not even set a deadline of 10 December – when EU leaders are due to gather for a summit – when asked by a journalist if that was the latest point a deal could be struck by.

“It’s unfortunate that it took longer than planned but we’re still currently negotiating and Michel Barnier is leading the negotiations, so we’ll see over the next few days what the next steps are,” he said in a briefing on Friday.

Alok Sharma, the business secretary, said earlier that “we are at a critical phase”.

“It is fair to say that we are in a difficult phase, there are some tricky issues still to be resolved,” he admitted.

The issue preoccupying negotiators this week is believed to have been the EU’s demand for what is known as a “level playing field”.

This concerns the issue of state subsidies and standards which could seriously affect competition once the transition ends.

Mr Barnier was due to brief 27 national envoys to Brussels on Friday by video conference.

But a spokesperson for the group, Sebastian Fischer, confirmed the meeting would not go ahead “due to the ongoing intensive negotiations in London”.

He added: “Keep your fingers crossed and stay tuned!”

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