The latest round of talks between the UK and EU on the future relationship ended today on another sour note. But after obstinately insisting under no circumstances would there be any extension to the transition period, David Frost, the prime minister’s special adviser and chief negotiator, seems to have finally realised that time is short.
He released a statement this morning to declare the discussions this week were “useful” but warning there has been little progress.
“The EU is still insisting not only that we must accept continuity with EU state aid and fisheries policy, but also that this must be agreed before any further substantive work can be done in any other area of the negotiation, including on legal texts. This makes it unnecessarily difficult to make progress. There are other significant areas which remain to be resolved and, even where there is a broad understanding between negotiators, there is a lot of detail to work through.”David Frost, UK chief negotiator, 20 Aug 2020
Frost said that, “Time is short for both sides” obviously forgetting that this is entirely the UK’s choice.
He went on to repeat that the UK is seeking to regain sovereignty and agree a new relationship based on free trade agreements the EU has signed with other countries, but with “practical arrangements” for cooperation in areas such as aviation, scientific programmes, and law enforcement. “When the EU accepts this reality in all areas of the negotiation, it will be much easier to make progress,” he added.
However, there was little sign of the EU accepting Frost’s reality. At a press conference in Brussels after the talks broke up, a “visibly annoyed” Michel Barnier complained the talks were “going backwards” and said there had been “no progress whatsoever on the issues that matter”.
“Too often this week it felt as if we were going backwards more than forward. Given the short time left … today at this stage an agreement between the UK and the European Union seems unlikely. I still do not understand why we are wasting valuable time,” he added.
According to the Independent, the EU’s chief negotiator told the press conference that Britain would find all countries with whom it tried to negotiate trade agreements would require the British government to sign up to common rules.
“No international agreement was ever reached without the parties agreeing to common rules and I can predict with absolute certainty this will also be the case of trade agreements with other partners in the future such as the United States, Japan, and Australia,” Barnier said.
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Talks are set to resume on 7 September in London, but both chief negotiators and their teams have agreed to remain in close contact over the next two weeks, according to Frost.
Bloomberg reports that the UK has submitted a draft free trade agreement containing what is known as a “consolidated” text using wording the two sides agree on, as well as highlighting areas where differences remain. According to Bloomberg, the move is designed to force the hand of the EU, which has been reluctant to take such a step because of its demand for “parallelism” where Brussels insists on discussing all subjects simultaneously – something UK officials say has “paralyzed the process.”
The EU has complained that Britain is yet to publish any post-Brexit state aid rules and had said if there’s no agreement on state aid, there cannot be a trade deal at all. It is not prepared to make any compromises unless it knows our intentions on state aid that could distort competition.
Michel Barnier said in his statement (delivered mainly in French) that the level playing field issue is “not going away) and is a “non-negotiable” condition of access to the single market. British negotiators have apparently refused to commit to EU standards on working and rest times for UK hauliers travelling in continental Europe. He went on:
“And obviously, in any case, why should we give access to our roads to road carriers who refuse to apply rules that are essential to good working conditions and the safety of all?
“Why should we also allow British air carriers to operate on the same routes as European operators if they are not bound by comparable standards for the protection of the environment or of passengers?
“In the same vein, why should we accept that the UK government can, in the future, freely distort competition against our own companies – for example by granting subsidies or waivers on emissions or standards? of work – without any framework of regulatory consistency between us?”Michel Barnier 21 August 2020
“You can see that behind these words “Level Playing Field”, it is about the protection of thousands of jobs in our member states, the rights of our workers and consumers, our health, and the protection of our environment.”
It does not seem like the EU is in the mood for compromise anytime soon. Johnson is still on course for the elephant trap he has dug for himself.
This article has been updated with added comments from M Barnier