Brussels At least in their findings, Michel Barnier and David Frost agree: “I regret that we have made very little progress,” said London’s chief negotiator Frost. His Brussels counterpart Barnier called the latest round of negotiations “very disappointing”.
For the whole week, the teams – each with around 250 employees – had tried to advance discussions about the future relationship between the European Union and ex-member Great Britain. And in parallel at eleven virtual negotiating tables, because there are all sorts of things to regulate – from a trade agreement to fishing quotas to cooperation between the security authorities.
However, the positions are still far apart after the third round of negotiations. Time is of the essence: if neither side has signed a trade agreement by the end of the year, customs duties and import quotas will come into force.
Then the transition period after the exit ends, during which the United Kingdom remains in the European single market and customs union. Leaving without an agreement, as BDI general manager Joachim Lang had previously warned with regard to the pandemic-related recession, “would turn a difficult economic situation into a catastrophic one”.
But the pressure is obviously not yet so high that the negotiators should already vacate their maximum positions. The corona crisis made the negotiations now conducted by video conference even more difficult, the virus also affected the health of the two chief negotiators.
Both sides only have until the end of June to agree to extend the transition period by one to two years – something Prime Minister Boris Johnson has so far categorically rejected.
London calls for Canadian-style free trade agreements
The two chief negotiators asked the other side to rethink their own position. Frost accused the EU of taking an “ideological approach”.
Barnier countered that the UK needs to be “more realistic”: “There seems to be no real understanding of the objective consequences of the UK’s exit decision,” said the Frenchman.
London continues to demand a Canadian-style free trade agreement with the EU that largely removes import restrictions. However, the EU countries continue to impose duty-free and quota-free trade on conditions: the British government should undertake not to undercut European environmental and social standards and the rules on state aid.
Johnson, however, strictly rejects such a commitment – after all, the entire Brexit served the goal of regaining control. His cabinet minister Michael Gove recently played with the idea of preferring to accept tariffs and quotas instead. But that would require lengthy negotiations over hundreds of different product categories, Barnier warned.
Some movement, on the other hand, seems to have come to another question, which is the second main point of contention between the two sides: fishing rights. The EU countries with large fishing fleets are demanding that they continue to be allowed to fish in British territorial waters in the North Atlantic on the basis of fixed quotas. London, however, rejects this and wants to renegotiate the catch quotas every year.
Barnier linked these discussions with the trade talks to strengthen their own bargaining rights. This week, both sides would have come a little closer together by talking about the decision parameters, he said.
On this basis, both sides could hopefully advance to the next round of negotiations in June, if possible by early July. Barnier said that he was “still determined but not optimistic” about getting a deal.
More: Exit strategy: Johnson’s Corona plan divides Britain.