UK and EU accuse each other of perilously threatening the chances of a deal after the second round of tortuous negotiations. And its all overshadowed, but not yet eclipsed, by coronavirus.

The UK “failed to engage substantially” on the most difficult areas in ‘new relationship’ talks, according to the EU’s chief negotiator.

With the conclusion of the second round of talks today, Michel Barnier, who has only recently recovered from coronavirus, walked into an empty self-isolated press room to accuse the UK of avoiding difficult conversations.

This week has not gone well.

One EU source said the UK was “cherry picking” areas of interest and merely politely listening, but not engaging, with the rest.

“We see the British authorities very active, and trying to move forward in some areas of the negotiation, and in some others they don’t want to make progress.”

Senior EU official, 24 April 2020

A UK spokesperson hit back: “We do not recognise the suggestion that we have not engaged seriously with the EU in any area…We are ready to keep talking but that will not make us any more likely to agree to the EU’s proposals in these areas.”

Some ‘no-go’ areas are starting to sound dangerously intractable:

The EU argues that the UK’s economic size, and its geographical proximity to the European Union, warrants the need for a “level playing field” in a raft of lawmaking from the environment to labour rights and state aid. The UK fears being perpetually tethered to EU.

Fisheries is another bone of contention. The EU sees an unbreakable trade-off between access to UK waters for European boats in exchange for UK access to EU markets. Michel Barnier said today there has been “no progress” in this area.

The UK, the EU argues, should agree to fundamental rights as part of police and judicial co-operation including a commitment that the UK will remain in the European Convention on Human Rights. The UK side says that is a matter for the UK alone to decide and should not be part of a deal with the EU.

And the list goes on.

Added to the political, are the logistical challenges. These negotiations are way behind schedule. Several rounds of negotiations had to be cancelled because of coronavirus lockdowns – and both negotiators suffering the symptoms.

It has taken six weeks for Michel Barnier, and the UK chief negotiator, David Frost, to recover. And for the technology to be in place for the talks to go digital.

One hundred British and EU officials have been locked in negotiations by video conference all week. Sources said the technology held up fairly well, but lacked the diplomatic back channels: a quiet words during the coffee break or an ability to fully gauge body language around the table.

If there is to be a deal, the timetable demands significant progress by June. A deal by the end of the year in reality means having a legal text ready by October. Six months from now. The kind of deal which usually takes the EU the best part of a decade to conclude.

Right now Britain is in transition limbo – officially it has left the EU, but in reality EU rules still apply including freedom of movement of people, the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, and the full slate of EU law.

The UK’s response to the coronavirus, for example, had to be approved by the European Commission. The £50 billion scheme was given the nod earlier this month, once the EU had concluded that “measures are necessary, appropriate and proportionate to remedy a serious disturbance in the economy of the UK.”

It’s the kind of oversight the UK wants to free itself from. It’s exactly the kind of level playing field the EU wants to continue to hold.

Both sides still say a deal can be reached this year, although the EU has once again been dropping strong hints that more time would be preferable.

The UK has always argued that, since the two sides are starting from a position of convergence (in other words, at the moment the UK is aligned because it is currently still following EU laws), a deal is not that complicated.

This week has shown we’re sure not there yet.

Categories: Brexit