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UK sees 66% chance of Brexit trade deal but tells EU to hurry up

LONDON (Reuters) - Britain said on Wednesday there was a 66% chance of a Brexit trade deal but sought to use Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s deadline of Oct. 15 to hurry the bloc’s negotiators towards an agreement.

FILE PHOTO: Britain's chief negotiator David Frost arrives to attend Brexit talks with EU's chief negotiator Michel Barnier at the EU Commission in Brussels, Belgium July 15, 2020. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

The two sides say they are inching towards a deal that would govern around $900 billion in trade after Dec. 31 - when the current transitional arrangements end - though sticking points remain on fishing, level playing field issues and governance.

“The landing zone and the nature of the agreement is pretty clear if not exactly pinned down yet,” David Frost, the UK’s chief Brexit negotiator, told parliament. “A deal is eminently achievable and could be achieved but equally it is possible that we won’t get there.”

When Johnson’s Brexit supremo, Michael Gove, was asked by a Conservative lawmaker if the probability of a deal was still 66%, Gove said: “I think that’s about right.”

Frost cautioned the EU that an Oct. 15 deadline set by Johnson on Sept. 7 remained a deadline. The EU is due to asses progress on a deal at an Oct. 15-16 summit.

He added that Britain’s “door would never be closed” and that a huge amount of textual work would need to follow Oct. 15 if an outline deal was struck.

“As we approach the 15th -- and it is very close already -- I will have to advise the prime minister on whether the conditions in his statement have been met or not, and we will have to consider the situation at that point,” Frost said.

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Sterling fell on a Bloomberg report that Britain would pull out of talks next week unless there was clear landing zone for a deal. Sources told Reuters the EU is gearing up to keep negotiating until as late as mid-November.

The United Kingdom formally left the EU on Jan. 31, more than three years after it voted 52%-48% for Brexit in a 2016 referendum. The two sides are now trying to work out how everything from cars to Camembert to whisky will trade.

Johnson told European Council President Charles Michel on Wednesday that some progress had been made but that significant differences remained.

“NOT AT ANY PRICE”

Gove said no-deal preparations were intensifying so that if the EU was intransigent and no good deal was available, the United Kingdom would not be held hostage by the EU.

“Those preparations are intensifying as we speak,” Gove said. “While we are obviously keen to get a deal, we will not do a deal at any price.”

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The EU replied to Gove within hours.

“The EU prefers a deal, but not at any cost,” said Michel. “Time for the UK to put its cards on the table.”

While many investment banks say their base case is that a deal will be done, some diplomats fear Johnson could ultimately decide that a no-deal is more attractive in domestic political terms than such a thin trade deal.

The EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier briefed EU ambassadors in Brussels on Wednesday on the negotiations.

“Barnier did not strike a particularly optimistic tone today,” said one diplomat who attended the briefing, adding that expectations for the Brexit-focused EU summit next week were low and negotiations were expected to continue after that.

Emotive issues remain unresolved, such as fishing.

A French EU lawmaker who chairs the European Parliament’s fisheries committee told Reuters there could be no annual quota negotiation in a trade deal with Britain, sticking to a tough line from Paris that could make a Brexit deal more difficult.

Britain could agree to a “glide path” towards a suitable end point for a future fisheries agreement with the EU as long as it satisfied the country’s fishing communities, Frost said.

Additional reporting by John Chalmers and Elizabeth Piper; Writing by Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Catherine Evans, Gareth Jones and Alexandra Hudson

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