Britain and the EU have taken a step forward towards striking a post-Brexit trade and security deal after Boris Johnson and Ursula von der Leyen agreed to “go the extra mile” and ordered the resumption of talks in Brussels.
The prime minister played down expectations following the telephone conversation with the European commission president, telling the cabinet to prepare for a no-deal exit when the transition period ends in three weeks’ time.
But in Brussels, EU embassies were briefed by the commission that “progress has been made” and that “the next days will be important”. Von der Leyen in a statement described the discussion with Johnson as “constructive”.
The leaders’ phone call at noon Brussels time on Sunday had been due to be the point by which a “firm decision” would be made on the prospects of a deal, with Johnson saying on Friday that it was “very, very likely” that the talks would end in failure.
The foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, had said in television interviews on Sunday morning that there was a “high bar” to be reached for the negotiation to continue beyond this weekend, adding that it needed a change in policy from the EU.
Speaking to broadcasters following his call with Von der Leyen, Johnson refused to comment on progress made but said he would not be “walking away”.
“I’m afraid we’re still very far apart on some key things, but where there’s life, there’s hope. We’re going to keep talking to see what we can do,” he said. “The UK certainly won’t be walking away from the talks.”
Johnson said he wanted to involve the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, and France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, in the talks but had been rebuffed again by the commission.
“The commission is very determined to keep the negotiations the way that they have been done between us and that’s fine,” he said. “The most likely thing now is of course that we have to get ready for WTO [World Trade Organization] terms, Australia terms, and don’t forget everybody, we’ve made huge preparations for four and a half years … perhaps more intensively in the last couple of years.
“I think that the UK should continue to try. And I think that’s what the people of this country would want me to do. We’re going to continue to try and we’re going to try with all our hearts and we’ll be as creative as we possibly can. But what we can’t do is compromise on that fundamental nature of what Brexit is all about.”
Despite the tough talk from Johnson, the past few days appear to have put the troubled talks on a new trajectory. Von der Leyen travelled to Paris on Sunday to see Macron for a pre-scheduled dinner. In Berlin, Merkel said the EU “should try everything” to get an agreement.
“The negotiating position hasn’t changed in any way, and the fact that the talks are not easy is clear,” the German chancellor said. “Britain is leaving the internal market, and we of course need to make sure that there are fair conditions for competition in place if the legal situation between the UK and the EU moves further apart.”
EU sources said the two sides were finding common ground over clauses in a potential deal designed to ensure neither side could undercut the other as they set their own regulatory standards.
The negotiations between the teams led by the UK’s chief negotiator, David Frost, and his EU counterpart, Michel Barnier, had run until midnight on Saturday, with the British team ending the evening with bacon sandwiches in the UK ambassador’s residence.
The negotiators resumed on Sunday at 9am in Brussels and are expected to continue on Monday morning.
In a joint statement released after their conversation on Sunday, Johnson and Von der Leyen said the two sides had a responsibility to keep on working.
The leaders said: “We had a useful phone call this morning. We discussed the major unresolved topics. Our negotiating teams have been working day and night over recent days. And despite the exhaustion after almost a year of negotiations, despite the fact that deadlines have been missed over and over we think it is responsible at this point to go the extra mile.
“We have accordingly mandated our negotiators to continue the talks and to see whether an agreement can even at this late stage be reached.”
Johnson said the UK and the EU “remain very far apart on these key issues”, adding: “Let’s see what we can achieve … if Ursula is optimistic, then that’s great … as far as I can see there, there are some serious and very difficult issues that currently separate the UK from the EU.”
The biggest stumbling block to a deal has been the EU’s demand for an “evolution” or “ratchet” clause in the treaty that would create a mechanism to ensure that a minimum baseline of environmental, social and labour standards evolves over time, to ensure there is no significant distortion of trade.
Downing Street has said the EU’s proposals would tie the UK to follow regulatory changes in Brussels on pain of automatic tariffs. Arbitration over those tariffs would only then follow.
On Friday the Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte, said that for zero-tariff access to the European market, the EU needed some reassurances that if one side deviated significantly on standards on some products, there would be a structured conversation about addressing distortions to trade.
Raab said: “Mark Rutte is on voice, he is normally pretty pragmatic, we are normally quite close to the Dutch on these matters … There are plenty of other voices. The bottom line is this: are we required to follow EU rules past, present, future and do we have a situation where when we are exercising normal control over our own law as any democracy does that we suddenly find there is a torpedo of tariffs.”
It is understood that the EU has agreed that tariffs should be applied only once there is clear evidence that regulatory changes by one side have significantly distorted trade. Frost tabled a fresh proposal on Saturday.
Ireland’s taoiseach, Micheál Martin, said last week’s agreement on implementing the Northern Ireland protocol showed that the two sides could reach accommodation on difficult issues. “I think it would be an appalling failure of statecraft if we were not in a position to get a deal over the line,” he said.
Following the Guardian’s revelation that the Royal Navy would deploy gun boats to police the seas in the event of a no-deal exit, the president of the European council, Charles Michel, called for calm.
“I want to say keep cool,” he said. “Just because we’re at the end of a negotiation doesn’t mean we have to lose our temper and go overboard.”