Trade talks with EU see very little progress, says UK chief negotiator
Britain and Brussels appeared far apart on agreeing a future trade arrangement after the UK’s chief negotiator said “very little” progress had been made in the latest round of talks.
David Frost insisted the major obstacle to agreement was the EU’s insistence on including a set of “novel and unbalanced proposals” regarding a level playing field on standards.
Mr Frost also said it is “hard to understand why the EU insists on an ideological approach” to negotiations on fishing rights.
The EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier insisted that the UK could “not have the best of both worlds” in a deal.
Following the conclusion of the third negotiating round, Mr Frost said: “I regret however that we made very little progress towards agreement on the most significant outstanding issues between us.
“It is very clear that a standard Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement, with other key agreements on issues like law enforcement, civil nuclear, and aviation alongside, all in line with the Political Declaration, could be agreed without major difficulties in the time available.
“The major obstacle to this is the EU’s insistence on including a set of novel and unbalanced proposals on the so-called ‘level playing field’ which would bind this country to EU law or standards, or determine our domestic legal regimes, in a way that is unprecedented in Free Trade Agreements and not envisaged in the Political Declaration.
“As soon as the EU recognises that we will not conclude an agreement on that basis, we will be able to make progress.”
A senior UK official close to the negotiations said the talks had been “a little bit tetchy at times” and “disruptive”, but had “gone well in terms of process”.
Chief UK negotiator Mr Frost said fishing arrangements are another sticking point.
He said: “Although we have had useful discussions on fisheries on the basis of our draft legal text, the EU continues to insist on fisheries arrangements and access to UK fishing waters in a way that is incompatible with our future status as an independent coastal state.
“We are fully committed to agreeing fishing provisions in line with the Political Declaration, but we cannot agree arrangements that are manifestly unbalanced and against the interests of the UK fishing industry.
“It is hard to understand why the EU insists on an ideological approach which makes it more difficult to reach a mutually beneficial agreement.”
He said: “We very much need a change in EU approach for the next round beginning on June 1.
“In order to facilitate those discussions, we intend to make public all the UK draft legal texts during next week, so that the EU’s member states and interested observers can see our approach in detail.”
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has repeatedly said he will not extend the post-Brexit transition period beyond its scheduled conclusion at the end of the year.
Speaking at a press conference in Brussels, Mr Barnier said: “You cannot have the best of both worlds.”
He added: “Our future partnership will be shaped by the choices we make this year together.
“The EU will not act in haste on such an important matter.
“The next round must bring new dynamism in order to avoid a stalemate between us.
“Let us make a success of round four in the first week of June by making the tangible progress we need.”
Mr Barnier outlined the importance of upholding the Good Friday Agreement.
The senior UK official close to the negotiations said the problem “continues to be that the EU thinks that a kind of halfway house between what we’re willing to see on the so-called level-playing field and what they’re willing to see”.
The official added: “As we’ve tried to make clear from the start, there isn’t a halfway house – we can’t split the difference between areas where we control our own laws and waters, and those that we don’t.”
The official said both sides remained “optimistic” a deal could be struck, and that it was “easy to see” how a “pretty standard and major free trade agreement” could be agreed quite quickly.
But they added: “We’ve always made clear that if an agreement can’t be reached then trading on what we call Australia terms is perfectly doable and satisfactory.”