No-go-tiations: Talks with Brussels breakdown as Barnier bemoans Boris’ unbending Brexit position

Earlier today, the seventh round of future relationship negotiations between the United Kingdom and the European Union concluded with neither side reporting a significant breakthrough.

The talks that took place between Tuesday and Friday focused on discussing the blockages to an agreement being reached; this notably included fisheries and the EU’s proposed level playing field. 

The EU’s published agenda highlighted that sixteen hours were spent examining whether continental vessels would have unfettered access to British fishing waters and the possibility of the UK’s diverging from the EU’s state aid rules.

Michel Barnier, the leader of Brussel’s Brexit taskforce, claimed that the reason for the lacklustre talks was that “British negotiators have not shown any real willingness to move forward on issues of fundamental importance for the European Union”.

The UK’s chief negotiator, David Frost, partially agreed with his Brussels-based counterpart as he conceded that “little progress” had been made.

However, Frost accused the EU of being the ones making negotiations “unnecessarily difficult”. Frost’s accusation comes as the bloc refused to talk about other major issues in the biggest change in the UK’s relationship with Europe since the country joined the EEC 47 years ago.

A long-standing British diplomat, Frost added that an “agreement is still possible, and it is still our goal, but it is clear that it will not be easy to achieve”. 

Despite Frost’s positive determination for an agreement to be reached Barnier seemed unwilling to change tact. Instead the former minister in Sarkozy’s government described the chances of a deal being struck as “unlikely”. 

Barnier added: “On the European side, we are very concerned with the state of negotiations. The clock is ticking.”

Earlier this summer, the UK government stated that they would not pursue an extension to the transition period as it would leave the UK tied to EU rules and reportedly cost the country upwards of £380 billion.  

David Frost previously suggested that it would be counter-intuitive for the UK to agree to an extension to the transition period as it would damage Britain’s road to post-Covid economic recovery.

This means that the United Kingdom’s eleventh-month transition period will conclude on the 31st of December, 2020. After which the UK can take back control of its rulemaking and regulatory power from Brussels. 

There are a little over three weeks until the two teams next meet. This time Barnier will travel to London to meet Frost on the 7th of September. 

Both negotiating teams claim that the UK and EU will need to agree to a deal by October for both parties to have ample time to ratify the agreement. This gives the UK and EU limited opportunities to put an agreement in ink. 

A vital issue to Barnier’s French compatriots is the fishing industry. Brussels hopes for continued access to Britain’s fishing waters.

However, this is at odds with what was promised to the British people, and therefore, it is no surprise that “no progress [has been made] whatsoever” on EU access to British waters.

The former French agriculture minister also stated that he had “respect” for the UK’s concern over sovereignty and regulatory autonomy. 

However, he then warned Britain’s negotiating team that the issue of a level playing field was “not going to go away” and that “no international agreement was ever reached without the parties agreeing to common rules”.

Barnier proclaimed that a level playing field was a “non-negotiable pre-condition to grant access to our market of 450 million citizens”. 

A level playing field would prevent British divergence from EU directives and rules, this includes costly regulations, taxation measures and state aid rules. 

Barnier’s accusation that it is Britain’s fault that talks have stalled has prompted some response in Whitehall.

A member of Frost’s team replied by describing the EU’s insistence that talks could only go further once a continuity agreement on state aid and fisheries rules had been agreed was the main cause of the “frozen” talks.

Frost, the ex-CEO of the Scotch Whiskey Association, also used his post-talks statement to reaffirm that an eventual deal struck between the UK and EU would ensure the country can “regain sovereign control of our own laws, borders, and waters”. 

For many in the British negotiating team and amongst the Leave-voting public, the requirements that Barnier has set-out puts at risk the recently obtained sovereignty of the United Kingdom. 

In fact, one source told The Daily Express that the UK wanted “a free trade agreement similar to the one the EU already has with Canada… But what we cannot have is a form of relationship which requires alignment or one that constrains us to the EU’s rules.” 

The Johnson-Frost negotiating position is markedly different from Theresa May and Olly Robins, both of whom supported Remain. The former Prime Minister’s team failed to broker a withdrawal agreement palatable to either the 52 or 48 per cent in parliament between 2017 to 2019.

Johnson’s administration, which was mocked by Guardianista commentators as the Vote Leave government, is in stark contrast unapologetically Eurosceptic.

Moreover, unlike some political problems facing the government domestically, this hardline stance suggests that independence from the EU is a red-line for Boris Johnson and his Cabinet colleagues.

By J Walters

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