Boris Johnson and European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen have agreed to make a final push to get a post-Brexit trade deal in time for the end of the year.
Following a telephone call lasting more than an hour, the two leaders acknowledged that there were still “significant differences” on key issues standing in the way of an agreement.
In a joint statement, they said they were instructing their chief negotiators – Lord Frost and Michel Barnier – to meet in Brussels on Sunday to assess whether they could be resolved.
“In a phone call today on the on-going negotiations between the European Union and the United Kingdom, we welcomed the fact that progress has been achieved in many areas,” the statement said.
“Nevertheless, significant differences remain on three critical issues: level playing field, governance and fisheries. Both sides underlined that no agreement is feasible if these issues are not resolved.
“Whilst recognising the seriousness of these differences, we agreed that a further effort should be undertaken by our negotiating teams to assess whether they can be resolved.
“We are therefore instructing our chief negotiators to reconvene tomorrow in Brussels. We will speak again on Monday evening.”
The outstanding issues – fisheries, the so-called “level-playing field” rules on fair competition, and the governance arrangements for any deal – have been known for months.
What is unclear from the statement is whether either – or both – of the two leaders was prepared to shift ground during the call in a way that would enable their negotiators to bridge the gaps.
In the run up to the call, the UK accused the EU side of seeking to introduce “new elements” into the negotiations at the 11th hour.
The British side was angered by reported demands by Brussels that EU fishermen should continue to enjoy the same access to UK waters for another 10 years.
There was concern that Mr Barnier was coming under pressure from French President Emmanuel Macron at the head of a group of countries which feared he was giving too much ground to the UK.
Taoiseach Micheál Martin tweeted: “I welcome the fact that negotiators will resume their discussions on an EU and UK trade deal in Brussels tomorrow. An agreement is in everyone’s best interests. Every effort should be made to reach a deal.”