No breakthrough as EU, UK locked in crunch talks

By: AFP      Published: 08:22 PM, 3 Nov, 2020
No breakthrough as EU, UK locked in crunch talks

EU and British negotiators are holding face-to-face talks in locked-down Brussels to try to find a last-minute accord on post-Brexit ties, officials said Tuesday, with no sign yet of a breakthrough.

A European Commission spokesman dismissed British newspaper reports that the two sides had resolved the thorny issue of an EU demand to continue fishing in UK waters.

"We have not yet found a solution on fisheries," spokesman Daniel Ferrie told journalists.

He said that the EU's chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, and his British counterpart, David Frost, were meeting in Brussels with their teams.

Their physical presence highlighted the critical juncture of the talks.

Belgium is now under tight restrictions to curb a second wave of the coronavirus pandemic, with all workers -- including those at the Commission -- told to stay away from their offices unless there was no other option.

Britain and the EU have only days left to strike an agreement on their future trading, security and energy relations if they want it to be ratified and in force before January 1, 2021, when a post-Brexit transitional arrangement comes to an end.

The search for an accord has become even more high-stakes because of the devastating impact of the new coronavirus on the British and EU economies.

Diminished trust 

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson seriously undermined EU trust in September by introducing a bill to breach parts of the Brexit divorce treaty, the Withdrawal Agreement, that was reached late last year.

The bill, still passing through the UK parliament, intends to override a section of the Withdrawal Agreement dealing with trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. 

Under the treaty, Northern Ireland has a special status keeping it within the orbit of the EU's single market when it comes to goods. That aims to maintain peace on the island of Ireland by avoiding any north-south border.

The EU last month launched legal action against Britain over the bill.

Ferrie said "to date, the EU has received no reply from the UK" despite an end-of-October deadline to respond to a formal letter demanding explanations.

"We are therefore considering the next steps, including issuing a reasoned opinion," he said.

That is the next stage in the EU infringement process that could end up with the matter being sent to the European Court of Justice, which could impose penalties on the UK.

In London, Johnson's spokesman said "we are not disputing what the Commission spokesman has said".

He added that Britain was "committed" to addressing the dispute through a joint panel set up to decide details of the Withdrawal Agreement. "That is our overriding priority," he said.

'Not there yet' 

In the event of an EU-UK deal on post-Brexit ties, there is an expectation the controversial British bill will become unnecessary and possibly dumped by Johnson's government.

But to get there, both sides need to overcome persistent gaps in three areas: the EU's demand for similar rules to ensure fair competition; a dispute mechanism seen as robust and effective; and, finally, fishing.

On the fishing issue, Ferrie said the EU was intent on "protecting the fishing opportunities of European fishermen and women".

He dismissed a British proposal on making ownership of fish stocks determined by "zonal attachment", based on how long fish spent in the territorial waters of a country, saying that "cannot be the basis for the solution".

He added: "Intense negotiations are ongoing now here in Brussels. We're working hard for that deal. We're working hard on getting a deal soon. We're not there yet. So a lot more work remains to be done."