The Boris Johnson government is not expected to ask for an extension for the post-Brexit transition and will also leave the single market and EU customs union on December 31.
BRUSSELS – Trade negotiators from Britain and the European Union began the fourth round of post-Brexit negotiations on Tuesday, but no one in London or Brussels expected a breakthrough.
Instead, once the latest cross-channel video conference is over, Prime Minister Boris Johnson and EU chairman Ursula von der Leyen will meet to decide how to proceed.
The “high-level” June meeting to discuss negotiations was predicted in a political declaration signed by both parties in addition to the divorce agreement.
But that may be more pressing now, because negotiations between EU negotiator Michel Barnier and his British counterpart David Frost have revealed striking differences in approach.
– deadly pandemic –
Britain is now not expected to ask for an extension for the post-Brexit transition and so is on track to leave the single market and European Union customs union on December 31.
If there was no trade agreement at the time, experts predicted a severe disruption to businesses that had recovered from the coronavirus pandemic that no one had expected when Britain chose to leave the union in June 2016.
Barnier, a Brussels veteran and former French minister assigned by the remaining 27 EU members to negotiate an orderly Brexit, said last week that talks would be delivered.
“I hope that I will find out whether Britain wants to leave the single market by the end of this year by agreement or without one,” he told German radio.
Later, he told the British weekly The Sunday Times that he and Frost had a “shared responsibility” to prevent disaster.
“If we don’t get an agreement then that will have more consequences. And of course that will add to the already very serious consequences of the coronavirus crisis,” he said.
But despite the urgency of this problem, there are still deep differences of opinion about how London and Brussels want to approach to find new arrangements to oversee trade and cooperation.
– ‘An independent country’ –
Barnier has been mandated to seek an ambitious overall agreement to oversee the so-called “fair playing field” in manufacturing, labor and environmental standards.
This would give British companies access to most – but not all – of the benefits of a single market, without exposing their European rivals to efforts to weaken standards.
But Frost and Johnson, said they only wanted a simple trade agreement that would maintain British sovereignty while leaving most trade free of tariffs.
And, instead of putting this under the protection of a unique EU-UK pact, they want to pursue a series of agreements in separate sectors such as trade, fisheries, aviation and energy.
“We expect the round to be constructive and keep the process on track ahead of the high-level meeting later this month,” a British spokesman said.
“However, when David left for Parliament last week, it was clear that the European Union needed to change its position to reach an agreement,” he warned.
Barnier has complained that Frost’s more aggressive “tone” in pushing the British case in open letter exchange last month could disrupt progress.
And Brussels officials were annoyed because Britain, in their eyes, backed down on a written agreement to receive a level-playing-field guarantee as part of a future trade agreement.
But London insisted the draft UK proposal fulfills this commitment, and complained that the EU refused to offer the same type of trade agreement signed with sovereign powers such as Canada or Singapore.
“A balanced solution is needed that reflects the political reality on both sides, and we will continue to ensure our position is understood,” the spokesman said.
“We will not approve of any EU demand for us to give up our rights as an independent nation.”
With parties camping in conflicting visions of the way forward, some experts hope this week’s talks – specialist committees Tuesday through Thursday, then Frost and Barnier on Friday – to bear fruit.
– late compromise –
But with so much at stake, nobody expected the conversation to fail.
“I don’t think much will happen in this conversation,” said Anand Menon, academics and director of UK think-tanks in Changing Europe.
“Barnier and Frost say the same thing, an agreement doesn’t make sense. At the same time, both parties prefer to have an agreement,” he said.
He also did not expect Johnson and von der Leyen to achieve much at the end of this month.
“They might say that both sides are willing to continue talking,” he told AFP. “If we get a compromise, it will be too late in the talks, in the fall.”
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