Away from the spotlight, Brexit talks continue to wilt
While it is understandable that any news of Brexit has been overshadowed by the more prescient news of the coronavirus pandemic, the prospect of the UK’s departure from the EU has lingered on in the background.
Away from the spotlight, the fourth stage of Brexit talks have taken place over Zoom, with chief negotiators Michel Barnier and David Frost hammering out the big questions of the Irish border, fisheries, and tariffs. These talks seek to flesh out the final stage of negotiations.
However, like the past four years, the progress is incremental at best, and stunted at worst. Barnier and Frost have come unstuck over certain pernickety elements of the UK-EU future relationship, with Barnier saying at a Brussels press conference that the UK has reneged on previous agreements as per the political declaration agreed between the two, and that “I don’t think we can go on like this forever.”
Additionally, in a virtual meeting with the Parliamentary Brexit Committee, Frost said that the current EU mandate will not lead to a deal “that can be agreed with us” and that “it’s their call”.
Progress is seemingly unsure, with the Mirror reporting that a key British trade negotiator has said of breaking this deadlock with future talks that “Originally June looked like the inflection point but things have obviously got in the way. What we can’t have is a situation where this drags on into the Autumn.”
The key sticking issues in the talks include European access to British fishing waters, police and security, and the compliance of a “level playing field” on trade rules should Britain have unhindered access to the European single market. On fisheries, the EU is looking to tie some access to Britain’s waters to the free trade deal, to let EU fishermen continue their work once the EU-wide quota system no longer applies. However, Britain wants maintain control over its waters, creating a system of annual negotiation over waters known as “zonal management”, without directly reaching a quid pro quo in which EU access to British waters is the compromise for British access to the single market.
The EU have drawn a line in the sand on this, saying that the whole deal has to be integrated, and Barnier declaring: “There won’t be an agreement on trade if there isn’t one on fisheries.” Additionally, on the alignment of UK laws and product standards to a level playing field, the EU insists that this is to maintain fair play, not allowing the UK to undercut European business with a ‘bargain basement economy’ which could slash regulations and negotiate its own trade deals.
With the impasse seeming relatively immovable and bleak, financial and business communities are concerned. Without a deal, Nissan have hinted they may close their plant in Sunderland, and Carolyn Fairbairn, head of the CBI employers’ organisation, has said that after battling coronavirus companies have “almost zero” resilience and ability to cope with a drastic change in EU trading regulations. Furthermore, Chairman of the Bank of England Andrew Bailey has recently told Britain’s biggest lenders to prepare for a “no-deal” Brexit situation, and that such a scenario would increase trade barriers, making “trade more costly or difficult relative to a comprehensive FTA, reducing trade flows and foreign direct investment.”
However, former Conservative MEP and prominent Brexit campaigner Daniel Hannan has argued that the current pandemic actually reduces some of the downsides of no-deal:
“The single biggest concern about a no-deal outcome in Whitehall had been the prospect of delays at the Channel ports. Not now. Global trade and international travel have collapsed. While both will have picked up by December, the prospect of queues in Kent is no longer a worry.”
The next few months will be hugely significant for Britain and Europe’s future in terms of trade, diplomacy, and co-operation on the global stage. They will be a huge test of the government’s wherewithal. The 2024 general election may seem a long way away but, given their historical proportions, it’s likely the events of 2020 will go along way to defining it.