UK, EU clash over post-Brexit ties

A general view at the start of a round of post-Brexit trade deal talks between the EU and the United Kingdom, in Brussels, Belgium 29 June 2020
A general view at the start of a round of post-Brexit trade deal talks between the EU and the United Kingdom, in Brussels, Belgium 29 June 2020Reuters

Britain and the European Union clashed on Thursday over the chances of securing a free trade agreement, with Brussels deeming it “unlikely” but London holding out hope one could be reached in September.

Since Britain left the bloc in January, talks on the trade agreement and other future ties have all but stalled, with each side accusing the other of failing to compromise before a transition period runs out at the end of this year.

Those accusations grew louder after the latest round ended, with the EU’s negotiator Michel Barnier saying London had shown no willingness to break the deadlock and his British counterpart David Frost describing the bloc’s proposals as failing to meet the government’s demand to be treated as an independent country.

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But both sides agreed on one thing: there had been no movement on the main stumbling blocks to a deal on fair competition guarantees - or the so-called level playing field - or on fisheries.

Without a deal to govern future trade flows, some companies fear costly disruption and confusion at the border from next year, which would hit at a time when many are already struggling with the impact of the coronavirus crisis.

“By its current refusal to commit to conditions of open and fair competition and to a balanced agreement on fisheries, the UK makes a trade agreement - at this point - unlikely,” Barnier told a news conference.

“The time for answers is quickly running out,” he said. “If we do not reach an agreement on our future partnership, there will be more friction.”

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Frost was equally blunt, saying “considerable gaps” remained but he added: “Despite all the difficulties, on the basis of the work we have done in July, my assessment is that agreement can still be reached in September, and that we should continue to negotiate with this aim in mind.”

Senior EU officials say they only expect possible breakthroughs in the talks by the end of August or in September, but some have also expressed concerns that British Prime Minister Boris Johnson might go for a no-deal split.

Both sides say they want to secure a trade deal before the end of the status-quo transition, and while being unable to breach the gap in positions on fisheries and competition, both Barnier and Frost noted some progress in some areas, including on governance.

“Looking forward, there are large areas of convergence in many of the areas on which we are negotiating and ample precedents and texts on which we can base our work,” said Frost.

Barnier also noted some progress this week on how to settle any future disputes over a new EU-UK agreement, an element he has regularly mentioned previously as a key stumbling block together with level playing field clauses and the issue of fisheries.

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But he added that the EU would not seal an agreement that would damage its fishing industry and noted that the sides were still “far away” from each other with only a few weeks left to go.

With Britain pursuing a standalone free trade deal along the lines of one the EU has with Canada and Brussels wanting a wider agreement to take account of Britain’s proximity to the continent, the two sides have a lot of work to do to bridge the gaps.

“We will not accept to foot the bill for the UK’s political choices,” Barnier said.