Whereas Brexit is imminent, Barnier is touring from the EU to London

© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: European Union Brexit negotiator Barnier speaks to the European Economic and Social Committee in Brussels

By Gabriela Baczynska and Guy Faulconbridge

BRUSSELS v LONDON (Reuters) – European Union chief negotiator Michel Barnier will travel to London late Friday to seek a Brexit trade deal as both sides seek to resolve differences over fisheries and competition policy.

With only five weeks left before the UK finally exits EU orbit on December 31, both sides are calling on the other to compromise to avoid a tumultuous finale to the five-year Brexit crisis.

Face-to-face negotiations resume shortly after last week's interruption when one of Barnier's teams tested positive for the coronavirus.

"According to the Belgian rules, my team and I are no longer in quarantine. The physical negotiations can continue," said Barnier on Twitter. "Travel to London tonight to continue talks."

In a meeting for national diplomats in Brussels, Barnier said he could not say yet whether a new trade deal with Britain would be ready in time, a source told Reuters.

Talks are still limited to three main themes – fair competition guarantees, governance and fisheries – but so far neither side has shown a willingness to focus on them enough to allow a breakthrough.

The Barnier presentation did not provide a "particularly bright picture" of the talks, added the diplomat.

A source close to the negotiations said it has been "difficult" to make progress lately.

The UK officially left the EU on January 31, but has since been in a transition phase where the rules for trade, travel and business remain unchanged. From the end of the year it will be treated as a third country by Brussels.

The two seek to strike a trade deal in goods that will protect nearly $ 1 trillion in annual trade and the peace of Britain-ruled Northern Ireland.

The latter is a priority for US President-elect Joe Biden, who has warned British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to abide by the US-brokered Good Friday Agreement of 1998, which ended three decades of sectarian conflict.

The head of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, said on Wednesday that the EU is ready for the possibility that Britain will leave the bloc without a new trade deal despite "real progress" in the tortuous Brexit talks.

A "no deal" outcome would growl borders, terrify financial markets and sow chaos through the delicate supply chains that stretch across Europe and beyond – just as the world is grappling with the huge economic costs of the COVID-19 outbreak.

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