EU-UK leaders seek way out of Brexit trade impasse

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European Union's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier, left, speaks with Ambassador Michael Clauss, Permanent Representative of Germany to the European Union, during a meeting of EU ambassadors in Brussels, Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2020. Problems increased Monday in the bid to put a trade deal between the European Union and the United Kingdom before a Brexit transition period ends on New Year's Day, with the EU legislature insisting it will not have time to approve a deal. (John Thys, Pool via AP)

BRUSSELS – The European Union and the United Kingdom kicked efforts into higher gear on Tuesday to settle a fight over EU fishing quotas in British waters, the main obstacle to a trade deal that would avoid a chaotic New Year's Day economic divorce between the two.

EU nations insisted that they would even consider negotiating beyond Jan. 1 if necessary, acknowledging that an agreement that would safeguard hundreds of thousands of jobs on both sides should not fall apart over the small fisheries sector.

“We are really in a crucial moment and we are giving it a final push,” said EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier before he briefed EU member states on the state of negotiations.

After Barnier's briefing, an EU diplomat said that “progress has been made. Most issues are preliminarily closed or close to being agreed," with fisheries being the most notable exception.

The diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the talks were ongoing, said the 27-nation bloc “remains ready to negotiate even beyond January 1.“

Another diplomat said that among other issues not fully closed are a few disputes over fair competition rules.

A British official said that “significant gaps remain," and poured cold water on any idea to negotiate past Jan. 1. “We would need to have any agreement in place ahead of 1 January. We will not extend the transition period.”

Nine months of talks have boiled down to just a few days to reach a compromise on how to carry on trading with as few obstacles and tariffs as possible after Britain's Jan. 31 departure from the EU and a transition period that runs out at year's end.