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Post-Brexit deadlock: Four areas threatening to scupper EU-UK deal on trade and future ties

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Michel Barnier
Michel Barnier   -   Copyright  Francois Lenoir/Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved
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Michel Barnier, the EU's chief Brexit negotiator, has lamented that there has been "no significant progress in talks" at the end of the fourth round of negotiations on the future EU-UK relationship.

"Our lack of progress is not due to the method, but to the substance. We must stick to our commitments if we want to move forward," he said, accusing the UK of "backtracking" on key commitments made under the divorce deal.

Regarding cooperation between the EU and UK on foreign policy, development and defence, Barnier claimed the UK still did not want to talk about such issues, adding "I still don’t understand why”.

Barnier was giving an update on negotiations on the bloc's future relationship with the UK. Sticking points remain over difficult topics such as fishing rights, and the commitment to a level-playing field in future competition.

His UK counterpart David Frost agreed that progress had been "limited" and the remote format meant "we are close to reaching the limits of what we can achieve". Both sides have been negotiating via video link amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The United Kingdom left the European Union on January 31. Both sides are struggling to make headway with only months to go before the post-Brexit transition period -- which keeps most arrangements from the UK's EU membership in place -- expires at the end of the year. The UK rejects any extension, a decision on which would need to be taken by July 1.

'No significant progress'

The EU negotiator's assessment at his news conference was bleak. "The truth is there has been no significant progress," Michel Barnier said.

The EU wants one "ambitious" overriding agreement covering trade and all other subject areas, whereas the UK argues for a more basic trade deal with separate agreement on other matters.

Barnier gave a reminder of the four major areas of deadlock as identified at the end of the previous round of talks.

  • Fisheries: The UK intends to be free of the EU's Common Fisheries Policy and act as an "independent coastal state" from the end of 2020. The EU wants continued access to British waters. Barnier said the British had shown no willingness to explore alternatives to UK proposals on issues such as quota-sharing, insisting that UK demands for annual negotiations were "technically impossible" for the EU.
  • Level Playing Field: On "fair play" rules covering the economy and trade, Barnier said "no progress" had been made, despite EU attempts to forge consensus over maintaining standards. The EU wants to ensure it is not undercut by the UK in areas such as the environment, labour law, state aid, tax. The UK insists on setting its own standards, which it says will remain high, free from EU rules.
  • Governance: Barnier said both sides remained "far from the objective" of a framework to set up judicial bodies to oversee future cooperation. The EU wants a new governing body with decisions potentially referred to an independent arbitration panel. The UK foresees governance and dispute settlement arrangements “appropriate to a relationship of sovereign equals”.
  • Security: On police and judicial cooperation, Barnier said talks had been more constructive but important questions remained over how to include a commitment to the European Convention on Human Rights in an overall deal.

Fish fight

According to Barrie Deas, chief executive of the UK National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations, the previous agreement on fisheries (when the UK joined what was the EEC in the 1970s) meant that "EU fleets fish about six times as much in UK waters as UK vessels fish in EU waters. This is why the issue has become such a flashpoint in talks".

"The EU position would really require capitulation by the UK on the issue of fisheries and that's just not going to happen," Deas told Euronews Now.

"This is an asymmetrical relationship which benefits the EU fleets. And quite surprisingly, they want to cling on to that. They want the status quo, the UK needs to change their arrangements. The current mandate that the EU has is status quo or nothing. There doesn't seem to be room for compromise in that."

Next round

The EU's chief negotiator also expressed concern over the UK's commitment to implementing the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement -- the legally binding part of the divorce deal -- on matters such as border arrangements for Northern Ireland, and the rights of EU and UK citizens.

While Michel Barnier said that talks could not "continue like this eternally", he explained the remaining time must be used "in the best way possible". He offered to enter into more intense discussions over the most difficult issues with his British counterpart David Frost.

After the third round of negotiations in May, Barnier voiced his disappointment in what he said was the UK's lack of ambition in negotiations. He added that the UK had not got into "real discussion" on the level-playing field.

In the meantime, a June 30 deadline for significant progress is looming and key arguments remain unresolved. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson is due to meet European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen later this month.

Some commentators expect little movement to happen over the summer, especially while Europe remains consumed by the coronavirus pandemic. They believe that any breakthrough may require an intervention from national leaders and the political will to make concessions.