Stalemate after 4th round of post-Brexit talks
BRUSSELS, Belgium – The latest round of Brexit trade talks ended with no breakthrough Friday, June 5, as the EU and Britain stuck to long-held positions and called for negotiations to be ramped up.
The EU's chief negotiator Michel Barnier could report "no significant progress this week," accusing London of backtracking on divorce terms agreed in 2019.
"This situation cannot go on forever," Barnier told reporters after hundreds of officials completed 4 days of virtual talks on forging future EU-UK ties.
And the former French minister said any agreement must be reached before October 31 in order to be ratified before the end of the year.
This is when Britain will leave the EU single market and customs union with or without a trade deal.
Barnier's UK counterpart David Frost noted "limited" advances and asked that both sides "intensify and accelerate our work" in order to clinch the deal.
But a clearly frustrated Barnier said British negotiators are seeking to backtrack on commitments already made when Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson signed a political declaration with EU members in 2019.
Barnier said this declaration – which was annexed to the Brexit withdrawal agreement and signed by both sides – could be the "only reference" for the talks.
On key issues like a level-playing field rules for business, fishing rights and an overarching framework for the accord "the British are no longer pretending to negotiate," a European source close to the talks complained.
"There has been no effort on their part. It even seemed as if they had been instructed to drag their feet...that they don't have a political green light to negotiate," the source added, on condition of anonymity.
All focus now turns to talks between Johnson and EU chiefs Ursula von der Leyen and Charles Michel at an unspecified date later this month.
The meeting was planned in Britain's withdrawal agreement and will not involve the EU's key national leaders, such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel or French President Emmanuel Macron, who will be decisive to any breakthrough.
Expectations among Brexit-watchers were very low for this round of talks, and most in Brussels believe a breakthrough is not likely before the autumn.
The "high-level" meeting will also be the last chance for Johnson to ask for an extension to the negotiations beyond the end of the year when a transition period that keeps Britain aligned to EU rules comes to an end.
But Johnson has categorically ruled out prolonging the transition period and the Europeans are working under the assumption that London will not change its mind.
Some on the EU side fear that Johnson, who became prime minister on a promise to deliver a hardline Brexit, may not be serious about striking a trade deal, despite the consequences to the economy.
"At some stage we will have to look at whether we believe that an agreement is very likely," Germany's envoy to the EU Michael Clauss said on Thursday, June 4.
"If that is quite unclear then no deal planning will have to enter a higher gear," he said.
The negotiation flashpoints have remained the same since talks began in March.
"We're going backwards on a lot of things," one European source close to the discussions regretted, pointing to ill will by Britain.
London and Brussels starkly disagree on ways to assure fair competition under the terms of the trade deal, as well on how much access European fishing vessels will have to British waters.
Barnier's negotiation mandate states clearly that ensuring a level playing field for competition must abide by European standards, with the EU's highest court the final arbiter of what will be considered fair.
Britain bristles at this demand and considers the mere mention of EU law as an offence to a newly sovereign nation and well beyond what Europe asks of other trade deal partners.
On fishing rights, France and other coastal states are looking to maintain as much access to British coastline as possible.
The short time left for talks means that European hopes for a wide-ranging deal that would also include security, aviation, and other sectors are probably dashed.
A sense of urgency has also been sapped by the coronavirus outbreak that has made Brexit talks a lower priority in EU capitals.
French European Affairs Minister Amelie de Montchalin said Friday in the Sueddeutsche Zeitung that it was necessary to "prepare, as a precaution, for talks to fail." – Rappler.com