Time-wasting UK makes post-Brexit deal unlikely, says EU chief
Michel Barnier has accused the British government of “wasting valuable time” and making “unlikely” a post-Brexit deal between the EU and the UK.
With barely two months to go until the EU-imposed deadline of late October for a deal, the EU’s chief negotiator said: “Frankly I am disappointed and I am worried.” Barnier added he was “a little surprised” because Boris Johnson had told EU leaders earlier this summer he wanted progress by July.
After two days of talks with the British, Barnier said: “Too often this week it felt as if we were going backwards more than forwards.” At this stage an agreement seemed “unlikely”, he said. “I simply do not understand why we are wasting valuable time.”
His opposite number David Frost struck a more hopeful note, while acknowledging there had been “little progress”.
The UK chief negotiator said: “Agreement is still possible, and it is still our goal, but it is clear that it will not be easy to achieve. Substantive work continues to be necessary across a range of different areas of potential UK-EU future cooperation if we are to deliver it. We have had useful discussions this week but there has been little progress.”
The downbeat assessments came after two days of talks in Brussels and a private dinner between Barnier and Frost. During their meetings, Frost had given Barnier a fresh draft free-trade agreement in an attempt to break the deadlock. Known as a “consolidated legal text” the document merges existing EU and UK draft texts, in an attempt to speed up an autumn agreement.
Barnier said the document from the British had been “useful” to understand the UK position, while adding that it failed to understand the EU’s red lines on the “level-playing field”, common standards on environment, workers’ rights and state aid to give the British tariff-free access to the EU single market.
Sticking to the EU’s well-established position, Barnier rejected any attempt to fast-forward trade negotiations, ahead of other parts of the talks, such as fishing rights and British hauliers’ rights to deliver goods in the EU.
Barnier’s insistence on “parallelism” has long frustrated the British. Frost countered that the EU’s insistence on agreeing state aid and fisheries policy before any other area of the negotiation “makes it unnecessarily difficult to make progress”.
Frost, who said last week he hoped for a deal in September, added there were “significant areas” to resolve: “even where there is a broad understanding between negotiators, there is a lot of detail to work through. Time is short for both sides.”
The EU has said there will be no trade deal without an agreement on fishing, as it insists European boats maintain some access to British waters. On fisheries, Barnier said: “We have made no progress whatsoever on the issues that matter.”
He also expressed surprise about the UK debate about the loss of lorry drivers’ rights after Brexit, while stressing that any future access would depend on accepting EU standards on hauliers’ working time and other regulations. Citing recent press reports, he said: “We have seen an emotion that surprised me four years after the Brexit vote … the UK has decided itself to lose the benefits of the single market. It was their choice. It was not our choice.”
This week’s talks – the seventh round – lived up to low expectations on the EU side. Ahead of the talks EU officials warned that “proper negotiations” had barely started, because the two sides were only discussing principles of an agreement, rather than a draft legal text.
With the EU’s October deadline looming, the two sides must agree a legal text that will run to well over 400 pages, a far more complicated task than last year’s withdrawal agreement.