Britain’s Johnson, EU chiefs seek Brexit talks reboot
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson will meet EU chiefs by video link Monday to try to breathe new life into stalled post-Brexit trade talks, with both sides entrenched in long-held positions.
The conference with European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen and European Council chief Charles Michel will review progress in the talks on future EU-UK relations.
It is the first time Johnson has personally taken part in the talks which began in March, just weeks after Britain left the European Union on January 31 after 47 years in the European project.
While expectations are low for the long-planned meeting, the unpredictable Johnson, who has recently recovered from a bout with the coronavirus, has EU negotiators on the lookout for any potential surprises.
Britain and the EU have held four rounds of talks on how to organise their ties after December 31, when the UK leaves the single market and stops adhering to Brussels’ rules after an 11-month transition.
So far they have achieved little, giving Monday’s meeting added significance. London and Brussels have already agreed to intensify negotiations, with mainly in-person talks through July and August.
Talks between EU negotiator Michel Barnier and his British counterpart David Frost have mostly taken place virtually due to the coronavirus outbreak.
“So far we haven’t had actual negotiations, just an exchange of views,” an EU diplomat told AFP. “It’s a battle of strategies at this point.”
On Friday, Britain formally declared that it would not seek to extend the post-Brexit transition by one or two years, something it could have done according to the terms of the divorce deal Johnson signed last year.
The same intractable issues have hampered the talks since the start.
Britain has firmly rejected calls by the EU that it commit to European standards overseen by EU law to keep open access to the single market — something Brussels says would maintain a “level playing field”.
“We cannot accept the UK’s attempts to cherry-pick parts of our single market benefits,” Barnier said in a speech on Thursday.
“It is looking to pick and choose the most attractive elements of the single market — without the obligations,” he added.
The EU is also asking for continued guaranteed access to British waters for European fishing fleets, an idea Britain has so far refused. Instead, they have proposed annual talks on quotas for catches.
Britain is eager to keep its deep business ties to the EU single market, the world’s biggest — but it won’t recognise any mention of EU law or court decisions in the deal, which it sees that as a violation of its sovereignty.
Johnson’s government also refuses to discuss many topics beyond trade that the Europeans would like to have bound to the same deal.
Security, diplomacy, research and data flows are for now sidestepped by the British side, to the great frustration of Barnier and his teams.
Opinions diverge on how soon a deal needs to be struck in order to give companies the visibility they need on the terms of cross-Channel trade from January 1, 2021.
Barnier has said the deal needs to be done by October 31 to leave enough time to be ratified by member states and the European Parliament.
British officials believe a deal is needed sooner, and Barnier and Frost have both committed to participate actively in all aspects of the talks throughout the summer, to get a deal.
Failure to agree one will effectively remove Britain from Europe’s supply chain due to tariffs, customs and regulatory checks and other obstacles to business, such as professional licensing.
On Friday, the UK said that whatever the outcome of the talks, British customs officers would not be ready to deal with new rules at their ports or borders on January 1.
UK border checks will therefore be applied with a “light-touch” for the first months after the new year as Britain readies itself for post-Brexit trade ties.
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