UK ‘failing to engage’ in Brexit talks, says EU chief Michel Barnier
Talks were held over video conference this week because of the pandemic
The UK “failed to engage substantially” on key sticking points in Brexit talks held this week, the EU’s chief negotiator has said.
Michel Barnier also accused Boris Johnson’s government of rowing back on commitments made in writing by Britain at the point before exit.
The two sides restarted stalled negotiations on Monday via video talks after disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic prevented them from meeting in person.
They are trying to strike a free trade deal by the end of the year to prevent the UK crashing out of the single market on World Trade Organisation terms – an end result expected to cause significant economic damage.
Speaking at an online press conference to mark the end of the round of talks, Mr Barnier listed a number of continued sticking points in negotiations: the extent to which the UK would respect EU regulations and standards, the governance of the deal, whether the UK would formally stay in the European Convention on Human Rights, and the question of fisheries.
“This week the UK failed to engage substantially on these topics,” he said, addressing the issue of the so-called level playing field for regulations.
“It argued that our positions are too far apart to reach an agreement – it also denounced the basic premise that economic interconnectedness and geographic proximity require robust guarantees. Yet again, this is what we agreed with Boris Johnson in our joint political declaration. This is what the UK parliament approved after the December elections at the same time as the withdrawal agreement.”
Citing the political declaration on the future relationship approved by the UK and its parliament, Mr Barnier added: “What is written in this text needs to be implemented in a serious, objective, legal way in the negotiation. This is not the case yet, I regret that and it worries me.”
Mr Barnier also argued that the “UK cannot refuse to extend the transition and at the same time slow down discussions on important areas”.
The chief negotiator underscored a series of deadlines hanging over Brexit talks: June for choosing whether to extend the transition period, July for reaching a deal on fisheries, and December for negotiating a trade agreement and also fully implementing the deal to solve the Irish border approved last year.
A UK government spokesperson described the negotiating round as “full and constructive” but admitted that “limited progress was made in bridging the gaps between us and the EU”.
“Our assessment is that there was some promising convergence in the core areas of a free trade agreement, for example on goods and services trade, and related issues such as energy, transport, and civil nuclear cooperation,” the spokesperson said.
“We regret however that the detail of the EU’s offer on goods trade falls well short of recent precedent in FTAs it has agreed with other sovereign countries.
“This considerably reduces the practical value of the zero tariff zero quota aspiration we both share.”
They added that that there were “significant differences of principle” in other areas including fisheries, regulations, and governance.
The next round of talks starts on 11 May and is also expected to be conducted by video conference.