U.K. and European Union officials fear a Brexit deal is at risk of slipping through their fingers after a British attempt this week to reboot the deadlocked discussions faltered.
U.K. negotiators submitted a draft Free Trade Agreement based on where they believe there is common ground with the EU, said people familiar with the negotiations who asked not to be identified because the discussions are private. So far, the effort to break the stalemate hasn’t led to a breakthrough.
The two sides are unlikely to put a positive gloss on the latest round of talks when they wrap up in Brussels on Friday. The EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, and his opposite number, David Frost, are expected to highlight the deep disagreements that remain as time runs out, the people said. Chief among those are access to British fishing waters and the so-called level playing field requirements aimed at preventing a distortion of competition.
After a slow start as the coronavirus pandemic struck, there was a burst of optimism in June after Prime Minister Boris Johnson convinced the EU side that he was serious about getting a deal. But the positivity has ebbed as the negotiators have been unable to bridge the biggest divides.
Failure to get a deal would leave the U.K. and EU trading with tariffs and quotas and bring an abrupt end to cooperation in a whole range of areas from policing to aviation. The final negotiating round, scheduled to end on Oct. 2, is considered to be the final deadline if any agreement is to be implemented in time for the end of the post-Brexit transition period on Dec. 31.
The U.K. document, which has not been made public, is known as a “consolidated” text because it is the first version of the final treaty that incorporates wording the two sides agree on, as well as highlighting the areas where differences remain. Because it enables the two sets of negotiators to narrow down the list of disagreements, it is typically seen as a significant step forward.
The move is also designed to force the hand of the EU, which has been reluctant to take such a step because of its demand for “parallelism.” Rather than agreeing on the least contentious topics first and moving on, the bloc insists on discussing all subjects at once — something U.K. officials say has paralyzed the process.
An agreement on what access EU vessels will have to U.K. fishing waters is a prerequisite for any overall deal. The British government, which views taking control of its waters as an issue of sovereignty, is pushing for annual talks to set how many fish EU boats will be allocated based on a new way of calculating stocks that would give U.K. boats a bigger share of the catch.
“The U.K. is effectively asking for a near total exclusion of EU fishing vessels from U.K. waters,” Barnier said after negotiations last month. “That is simply unacceptable.”
Many of the EU’s criticisms are that Britain wants the same level of access to its single market as it did when it was a member. The U.K.’s bid for British truckers to continue to be allowed to make pick-ups and drop-offs throughout the EU — a process known as cabotage — is one example of something the bloc rejects for this reason.
One U.K. official stressed said the country wasn’t seeking single market access but that an agreement on the issue would be beneficial to both sides. Truckers from EU countries carry out seven times more cabotage in Britain than their U.K. counterparts inside the bloc, the official said.