Trade

Brussels starts next round of Brexit talks with low expectations

On Tuesday, around 200 people will (virtually) take part in the third round of negotiations on a future trade deal between the EU and the U.K. But expectations for the talks are very, very low.

“Were sticking to our guns and I dont see the Brits moving their position at this point either,” an EU official said ahead of the talks. “There wont be any movement during this round.”

A deal has to be agreed by December 31, when the Brexit transition period ends. Despite this, both sides acknowledged there was barely any progress made after the last round in April. To make matters worse, time was lost as talks were delayed because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The two sides are at an impasse on various issues, the thorniest being level playing field rules. Brussels wants London to follow EU regulations on state aid and environmental standards, among other things, to avoid the U.K. becoming a race-to-the-bottom competitor on the blocs doorstep. London insists on having the freedom to set its own rules.

Since the last round, U.K. officials have suggested that EU capitals should get involved in the talks to broker a compromise. “Clearly there will need to be some political movement on the EU side,” a Downing Street official said at the end of April, suggesting that heads of government would have to intervene to revise the EUs negotiating position.

The EU will prepare its contingency plans, as it did during the negotiations on the Withdrawal Agreement.

Its a suggestion theyve made before — during negotiations on the Withdrawal Agreement. And like the last time, the suggestion was met with eye-rolling in Brussels.

A meeting of EU ambassadors on Tuesday made clear that the EUs chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier will stick to his negotiating mandate, according to one person in the room and two people briefed on the meeting.

“The Brits are looking for flexibility on our side,” the EU official said. “They are frustrated that the EU wont budge and are trying to circumvent the Commission negotiators by lobbying the capitals. That didnt work in the past and it will definitely not work now, as leaders are too preoccupied by the corona crisis and the consequences of the lockdowns.”

“The conclusion of the meeting between EU ambassadors and Barnier was very clear,” an EU diplomat said. “We stick to our mandate. This isnt the right moment to take a step back on anything. The EU has more leverage in these talks, and we should use that.”

The draft proposal from the U.K. on fisheries might provide a possible way out of the current impasse. Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove announced on Tuesday that the U.K. will publish a proposal paper, which they sent to the EU over the weekend, the U.K.s negotiator David Frost announced on Twitter. This was something London had long refused to do unless Brussels dropped its demands on fish quotas.

Downing Street insisted it had not blinked first, although a spokesman for Prime Minister Boris Johnson was on Wednesday unable to point to any concessions from Brussels. But ofcourse, fisheries is only one of the contentious issues between the U.K. and the EU, the other being the level playing field provisions, governance and security.

Gove, who is responsible for no-deal planning and also sits on the EU-U.K. Joint Committee for implementing the Withdrawal Agreement, also told peers in the House of Lords that the U.K. is prepared to drop its demand for a zero-tariff, zero-quota trade deal as a concession to unblock the talks, but would not compromise on gaining full control of its laws.

That could put pressure on the EU, as some countries might push for keeping tariffs low while others may bat for strong level playing field clauses. But it could spell trouble for the U.K. too. A trade deal with quotas and tariffs means a line-by-line negotiation that could take years, not the months left until the Brexit transition period ends.

In an interview with POLITICO, João Vale de Almeida, the EU ambassador to the U.K., said the scope of the proposed relationship should not be scaled back. “We will stick to our proposal of a comprehensive agreement,” Vale de Almeida said. “I dont think this is a time to reduce the level of ambition.”

But “no one expeRead More – Source