A deal between the European Union and Britain for smooth post-Brexit trade is still possible before the year-end deadline and even more essential given the economic havoc of the coronavirus crisis, Taoiseach Micheal Martin said on Thursday.
Ireland is the EU member most exposed to a chaotic rupture with Britain if months of talks fail to produce a new framework for about a trillion euros of annual commerce between the world's sixth largest economy and biggest trading bloc.
"Where there is a will there's a way. We still can get this resolved within the timeframe available," Martin told EU leaders meeting in Brussels.
"With COVID-19 having such a devastating impact on society and on the economies in the United Kingdom and across Europe obviously leaders will not want to hit citizens with a shock a no-deal would represent."
The pandemic has thrust Europe into unprecedented recession and many nations are tightening restrictions again to combat a second infection wave sweeping the continent as winter looms.
Meeting face-to-face for only the third time in the pandemic, the EU leaders wore masks and kept their distance.
"It would be crazy for the outside world if the UK and the EU will not be able to come to an agreement. I think it's in both our interest economically and geopolitically to get to a deal," Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte added.
Britain left the EU in January and the estranged allies have since been locked in complex negotiations to try and keep trading without tariffs or quotas from 2021.
Talks have narrowed gaps on issues from social welfare to transport but three contentious areas have so far prevented a deal: fisheries, fair competition and dispute resolution.
EU WANTS TO KEEP TALKING
With businesses and markets increasingly jittery as the deadline nears, Thursday's EU summit was to approve extending the negotiations with a demand for Britain to budge.
"The European Council invites the Union's chief negotiator to continue negotiations in the coming weeks, and calls on the UK to make the necessary moves to make an agreement possible," said the latest draft of the EU summit conclusions.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson's spokesman said Britain would reflect on the Brussels meeting before deciding next steps. "We've always been clear that a negotiated outcome is our preference," he said.
Many on financial markets expect a thin deal by early November, though after several more weeks of drama.
The 27 EU heads will step up contingency plans for an abrupt split if no agreement looks likely.
The bloc says a deal must come in early November at the latest to allow for ratification by the European Parliament. A British minister said London could not wait much longer either to alert businesses if the talks were to fail.
With fisheries crucial to France, President Emmanuel Macron is expected to take a hard line on demanding continued access to UK waters.
Before the summit began, his Europe minister visited a northern French port on Thursday. "One single objective: to defend and protect the interests of fishermen," Clement Beaune tweeted pointedly.
The EU has warned it will not leave fishing rights to last and that they must be part of a wider deal together with issues like financial services where London has a weaker hand.
The sides are also far apart on fair competition safeguards covering social, labor and environment standards, as well as state aid.
Britain wants to be able to regulate its own corporate subsidies freely in the future, while the EU seeks to lock in joint rules. Otherwise, the bloc says Britain cannot have free access to its cherished single market of 450 million consumers. (Reuters)