UK Stands its Ground in Round Three of Brexit Negotiations

14 May 2020

Remember the good old days when Brexit dominated our news? Well, there are still plenty of questions about what is going to happen at the end of this year when the transition arrangements come to an end. And we are all aware by now at least, that the UK has formally left but are still bound by the same rules. 

Round three of the post Brexit EU trade talks began on May 12th, with the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier disappointed with the outcome and warning in a tweet, ‘We need tangible progress across all areas.’ Both sides are due to decide by the end of June whether the current deadline for negotiating an agreement should be extended beyond the end of December. It seemed evident that during the talks, the two blocs were getting bogged down, if not fully intrenched on free trade issues. There’s 100 negotiators on either side, and they say that’s not really the problem here, it’s more about fundamental issues that if you like, you could link a little bit to ideology, because what the UK keeps saying over and over again to the EU is…

 ‘You don’t seem to accept the fact that we’ve left, and we no longer want to be tied to your apron strings. We’re not going to exchange sovereignty for tariff-free trade.’   

And the EU is saying…

‘Listen here, if you want tariff-free and quota-free access to our single market now that you’ve left, because you’re so close to us geographically, because you know our businesses so well because you have been a member of the single market so long, because the volume of trade between us is so large, we have to protect our single market, and we can’t allow you to be able to undercut us – if one day you decide to slash your competition rules, labor regulations, environmental and state aid regulations. So, we are going to need a commitment from you that you’ll stay more or less close to us.

And the UK responds with…

‘Absolutely not!’ 

That is one of the main sticking points. Another is on fishing quotas. So we are seeing a clash if you like between the EU saying , ‘Practically speaking, we need you to agree to be close to us or agree to what we are saying', and the UK is saying, 'We are a sovereign state and we need that freedom.' So, it’s not just about negotiating rounds, as there is this one and one more before the big summit at the end of June when they need to decide whether or not to extend. When you have such glaringly different ways of seeing this agreement, or for the UK who want a number of different, smaller agreements – you need political involvement. And that’s a big problem right now because political leaders, the PM and EU leaders across the continent are all distracted by covid-19. Some may say, conveniently so. 

Do we see a pattern where everything will be left to the last minute, and that’s when the compromises will be made? EU diplomats are warning – what happens if there is a second covid wave in the Autumn? Will politicians have the bandwidth for compromise then? 

Observations from Brussels made regarding the beginning of the negotiation was that even though they all knew it wouldn’t be easy, both sides started from a position of certainty, goodwill, shared interests and purpose – with a belief that the best option for both sides would be an ambitious and comprehensive new partnership governing their future relationship. And that’s what these talks are all about for the EU. It is about making the UK an offer to have unprecedented cooperation with a third country. However, the UK continued to butt heads on fisheries in that they believe the EU doesn’t seem to accept their own logic when it comes to fisheries, and that it is an area where the negotiations aren’t treating the UK as they would other independent countries. It seems the UK should be treated like Norway, Iceland and the Pharaoh’s – negotiating access to their waters on an annual basis. This is despite the declaration made between the UK and the EU to make their best endeavors to reach an agreement by July. And this is necessary to provide sufficient clarity not only for British fishermen but also the European fishermen – including all businesses linked to fisheries. 

The UK does not want the fisheries agreement to be a part of the economic agreement, but a number of member states, France the Netherlands and others, have made very clear that they will not agree to any future economic partnership that doesn’t include a balanced, sustainable and long-term solution on fisheries. 

The commission received the British text on fisheries last week and are carefully analysing it. They will be looking to make sure that the agreement rests on fishing opportunities and access with beneficial advantages for both sides. As it stands now, the EU wants to fish in British waters – but the British want to sell their fish on the single market. As for governance, the EU wants the European Court of Justice to play an overarching role in enforcing parts of the deal. If there is no resolve, the EU insists there will be no trade deal at all. It’s therefore quite clear from briefings from the UK and EU officials that the next round of talks won’t be enough – and political compromise is likely to be the next step.