Tuesday, March 2, 2021
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EU-UK trade talks break up early over ‘serious’ disagreements

The latest negotiations in Brussels on an EU-UK trade and security deal have broken up early, with the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, complaining of a lack of respect and engagement by the British government.

The two sides ended the week’s talks – the first held in person since February – a day ahead of the jointly agreed schedule amid evident frustration at the lack of progress in bridging what both Barnier and his UK counterpart, David Frost, described as “serious” disagreements.

“Our goal was to get negotiations successfully and quickly on a trajectory to reach an agreement,” Barnier said in a statement. “However, after four days of discussions, serious divergences remain.”

The former French minister said Brussels had “listened carefully” to Boris Johnson when he had told the EU’s institutional leaders two weeks ago during a videoconference he wanted “political agreement” over the summer on the terms of a deal.

Barnier added that the EU recognised the British red lines of “no role for the European court of justice in the UK; no obligation for the UK to continue to be bound by EU law; and an agreement on fisheries that shows Brexit makes a real difference”.

But he suggested the EU’s willingness to be flexible on its initial demands in light of the British positions had not been met with similar understanding from Downing Street over Brussels’ red lines.

The EU has hinted at a willingness to drop its initial asks of EU state aid being incorporated into domestic UK legislation, non-regression from the bloc’s environmental, social and labour regulations and the effective continuation of the common fisheries policy.

But the EU negotiator said Downing Street needed to reciprocate with new proposals, adding there would be no deal without “level playing field” conditions in any potential treaty including on state aid.

Barnier has previously insisted that in order to find compromise, the British government should at least publish its plans for how the UK’s domestic subsidy regime will work from the end of the year when the transition period ends.

He further said in his statement there needed to be a “sustainable and long-term solution” on fisheries, taking into account the needs of European fishermen for certainty over their livelihoods and an effective all-encompassing dispute settlement mechanism to ensure both sides stick to their obligations.

“And we will continue to insist on parallel progress on all areas,” Barnier said. “The EU expects, in turn, its positions to be better understood and respected in order to reach an agreement. We need an equivalent engagement by the United Kingdom.”

The talks in Brussels, joined by smaller teams than in the past due to social distancing requirements, had been scheduled to continue through Thursday afternoon and into Friday with a final wrap up meeting between Frost and Barnier.

But the two sides issued statements early on Thursday afternoon calling an end to the talks, as British officials led by Frost returned to London.

“We have completed our discussion of the full range of issues in the negotiation in just over three days,” Frost said. “Our talks were face-to-face for the first time since March and this has given extra depth and flexibility to our discussions.

“The negotiations have been comprehensive and useful. But they have also underlined the significant differences that still remain between us on a number of important issues.”

Frost said the British side still wanted “an early understanding on the principles underlying an agreement” secured by the end of July. The two sides are due to resume talks next week in London.

Meanwhile, a row continues over the failure of both sides to provide “equivalence” judgements by the end of June to allow financial service operators to continue to work across the UK and the EU. Last year, it had been agreed that decisions on the equivalence of the two sides’ regulatory regimes should be completed by 1 July.

Earlier this week Barnier suggested the British government had been late in providing the necessary information to allow a decision to be made.

John Glen, the economic secretary to the Treasury, told a Lords committee he was “slightly surprised” the EU had sent a thousand pages of questions, with almost 250 of them arriving “as late as the end of May”.


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