UK-EU Brexit talks back on as clock ticks to trade deadline
European Union negotiators headed to London on Thursday to resume Brexit trade talks after Britain called off a boycott, with both sides vowing to work round the clock to seal a deal in the slender time left.
Led by chief negotiator Michel Barnier, the EU team was due in after a dramatic breakthrough on Wednesday gave Britain an outlet to end days of brinkmanship and redouble efforts to avert potential economic chaos at the end of the year.
“We are ready to welcome the EU team to London to what we would term intensified negotiations,” Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s official spokesman told reporters.
“Time is now in very short supply. Both sides do recognise that time is extremely short.”
In a joint document, Britain and the EU agreed that Barnier and UK negotiator David Frost would meet through the weekend and continue every day if necessary beyond that to bridge their yawning differences once a post-Brexit transition ends on December 31.
However, the 10-point memo cautioned that “nothing is agreed in these negotiations until a final overall agreement is reached”. The extent of state subsidies, how to arbitrate future differences and fishing rights remain key sticking points.
Before leaving Brussels, Barnier briefed leaders in the European Parliament about his “intensive talks” coming up.
“As has been the case throughout the negotiations, transparency and unity are key. The EP will have its say on any deal,” he tweeted.
Any deal will need parliamentary ratification on both sides before the end of the year, increasing the pressure on the negotiators to craft a legally binding text in the days ahead.
– Slamming doors –
Speaking to Sky News, British policing minister Kit Malthouse said he had his “fingers crossed” that the new urgency injected into the fraught talks would pay off.
“Negotiations often involve a bit of temper, and tensions, and slamming doors, and walking out,” he said.
“It’s in the nature of a negotiation that these things become tense, particularly towards the end when you’re facing a deadline.”
The breakthrough, which pushed the pound to six-week highs on currency markets, came hours after Barnier said that an agreement was “within our grasp” if both sides compromised.
An EU summit last week had said any compromises would have to come from Britain, angering Johnson’s government which then threatened to walk away.
Barnier also said the 27-nation bloc would proceed on “the basis of legal texts”, satisfying British demands for an intensification of the process to finalise a treaty.
Johnson’s spokesman said if the talks failed, the UK would end the transition period on a barebones arrangement with the EU governed by World Trade Organization quotas and tariffs, “and will prosper in doing so”.
However, such a “no deal” Brexit scenario in just over two months could see huge disruption to EU-UK business, just as both sides grapple with the economic havoc of the coronavirus pandemic.
Anxiety has been mounting about the likely repercussions of that, with European fishermen notably warning they face ruin if deprived of access to Britain’s rich waters.
On the UK side, businesses complain the government is failing to prepare on an array of fronts. Even with a trade deal, British companies will still need to wade through reams of new red tape to ensure their goods comply with EU standards.
That applies especially to road hauliers transporting goods to France through ports in southeast England, who will need a special new permit to enter the county of Kent to prove their cargoes are EU-compliant.
In a bid to prevent EU-bound trucks from snarling up the region’s roads from January 1, the government Thursday submitted new legislation to enforce fines on lorry drivers who enter Kent without the permit.
“As in all aspects of business,” Malthouse said, “you prepare for the worst and hope for the best”.