EU Warns Brexit Talks Could Collapse Unless UK Budges On Key Issues

Chief negotiator Michel Barnier warns of "serious difficulties" and accuses Britain of failing to engage on subjects laid out in the withdrawal agreement.

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The EU has said there are “serious difficulties” in the Brexit negotiations and warned that a trade deal may not be possible this year.

Brussels’ chief negotiator Michel Barnier accused the UK of “slowing down” the talks by failing to engage “seriously” on a number of key points.

He criticised Boris Johnson for “imposing” an “exceptional” timetable on the negotiations by refusing to extend the standstill transition period beyond December 31, and said the coronavirus crisis imposes additional responsibilities on the UK and EU to reach a deal.

But the UK hit back, accusing the EU of making unreasonable demands it does not make of other countries with which it has struck free trade deals.

Barnier warned that the gulf between the two sides risked the collapse of the talks.

“Never in the history of such important negotiations for any third country have we been under such time pressure,” he told a Brussels press conference.

“The UK therefore cannot impose this short brief timeline and at the same time not budge, make some progress, on some topics that are of importance to the EU.

“Otherwise one has to be seriously concerned in June as to whether or not the negotiations can have a successful issue.”

Officials from both sides have been negotiating this week in more than 40 video conference call calls.

But Barnier said only “very” partial progress has been made in the talks because the government has not engaged in four key areas outlined in the political declaration both sides ratified as part of the withdrawal agreement that took the UK out of the EU and triggered the transition.

The UK also acknowledged there had been “limited progress” in “bridging the gaps between us and the EU”.

The main areas of disagreement were:

  1. A “level playing field” with the UK and EU agreeing minimum standards on areas like workers’ rights and the environment. The EU believes it is essential to strike a deal but the UK thinks its approach is without precedent. Johnson has ruled out signing up to one and argued that UK standards are high enough that a level playing field is not required.
  2. How the future relationship will be governed. The EU is demanding a role for the European Court of Justice (ECJ) and is calling for the European Convention on Human Rights to be put in UK law. The UK is strongly against accepting EU law or giving the ECJ a role.
  3. Personal data. Barnier accused the UK of refusing to “to provide firm guarantees rather than vague principles on fundamental rights and individual freedoms”. But the UK disagrees with the idea that the ECJ should have a role in dispute settlement.
  4. Fisheries. Barnier said there had been no progress in this thorny area and said there would be no overall deal unless the UK was prepared to negotiate a “balanced, sustainable and long-term solution”, with the EU demanding a continuation of the status quo on quotas and access to waters. But the UK insists it will take full control of its waters at the end of the year and is open only to annual negotiations on quotas.

Barnier said his mandate was to get “tangible progress”, adding: “I’m afraid this has only been very partially met this week.

Michel Barnier and UK chief negotiator David Frost held talks on Friday morning after a week of negotiations
Michel Barnier and UK chief negotiator David Frost held talks on Friday morning after a week of negotiations
Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

“The UK did not wish to commit seriously on a number of fundamental points. These are not points we just came up with – they are written quite precisely in the political declaration.”

The declaration was “discussed line by line with Boris Johnson and his team, point by point,” and approved by the Commons and European Parliament, Barnier said.

Barnier added it needs to be implemented in a “serious, objective, legal way”.

“This is not the case now yet in a number of areas. I regret that and it worries me.

“We cannot accept making selective progress on a limited set of issues only.

“We need to make progress on all issues in parallel – we need to find solutions on the most difficult topics.

“The UK cannot refuse to extend the transition and at the same time slow down discussions on important areas.”

A UK government spokesperson said: “Our assessment is that there was some promising convergence in the core areas of a free trade agreement (FTA), for example on goods and services trade, and related issues such as energy, transport, and civil nuclear cooperation.

“We regret, however, that the detail of the EU’s offer on goods trade falls well short of recent precedent in FTAs it has agreed with other sovereign countries.

“This considerably reduces the practical value of the zero-tariff, zero-quota aspiration we both share.

“There are also significant differences of principle in other areas. For example we will not make progress on the so called ‘level playing field’ and the governance provisions until the EU drops its insistence on imposing conditions on the UK which are not found in the EU’s other trade agreements and which do not take account of the fact that we have left the EU as an independent state.

“On fisheries, the EU’s mandate appears to require us to accept a continuance of the current quotas agreed under the Common Fisheries Policy. We will only be able to make progress here on the basis of the reality that the UK will have the right to control access to its waters at the end of this year.”

Further rounds of negotiations have been scheduled for May 11 and June 1 for next rounds of talks.

The EU wants to see substantial progress by the end of June, which is the deadline for either side to ask for a transition extension and reach agreement on fisheries.


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