EU tells UK to make up its mind as trade talks near climax

European Union chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – The European Union told Britain on Friday it was time to decide what kind of future relationship it wanted as EU officials suggested negotiators could strike a post-Brexit trade deal as early as the weekend.

With less than four weeks left until the United Kingdom finally leaves the EU’s orbit on Dec. 31, talks snagged late on Thursday, prompting London to signal that chances of a breakthrough were receding.

Ultimately, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the face of the 2016 Brexit referendum campaign who is now grappling with Europe’s highest official COVID-19 death toll, will have to decide whether he and Britain would be better off making compromises or walking away.

For weeks, EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier and his British counterpart David Frost have been discussing fisheries, state aid and how to resolve future disputes so that an overall agreement governing almost $1 trillion (742.34 billion pounds) of annual trade can proceed.

As talks go down to the wire, an EU official told Reuters that a deal was “imminent” while another official suggested that a deal was days away.

One of the officials said the 27 EU leaders might have a separate gathering on Brexit this month, most likely after a summit already scheduled for Dec. 10-11.

“The real question is – Which political, economic, social project do they want for their own future?” European Council President Charles Michel said. “And this is a question for the British government and for the British people.”

Barnier, who is in London for talks, said Friday was an important day. A spokesman for the EU said that, with “intensive negotiations” continuing, a plan for Barnier to brief the bloc’s ambassadors in Brussels on the state of play had been cancelled.

“With Barnier staying there, it means talks haven’t collapsed,” said an EU diplomat. “It’s a good sign they are still pushing.”