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Brexit trade talks: Boris and Ursula to meet in coming days to discuss final 'significant differences'

Negotiations between the EU and Britain have been continuing in Brussels today.

Ursula von der Leyen and Boris Johnson.
Ursula von der Leyen and Boris Johnson.

Updated Dec 7th 2020, 6:53 PM

DIFFERENCES REMAIN BETWEEN the EU and UK, both leaders said, after talks between negotiators and political leaders took place today.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson have agreed that “significant differences remain” between the two sides after a phone call scheduled for 4pm this afternoon. 

The two chief negotiators in trade talks have been instructed by Johnson and von der Leyen to prepare an overview of the remaining differences, which will be discussed in a physical meeting in Brussels in the coming days, a statement said.

On RTÉ’s Six One News, Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney said that new problems rather than solutions had appeared in relation to fisheries. 

Despite progress made in the past few weeks on the most of the contentious issues, Taoiseach Micheál Martin said today the talks remain “very challenging”, and added that it would be a “significant failure” if no trade agreement is reached.

Meanwhile, Cabinet Office minister Penny Mordaunt has told the House of Commons that EU-UK negotiations had reached “a critical moment”.

Mordaunt said that she wasn’t hopeful that a deal would be done by the end of today.

“I am not hinting at that, although that would be jolly nice. In my opening answer in response to the question I outlined what I am expecting to happen this afternoon in terms of the Prime Minister speaking to the commission president – so I am not raising that hope.

“But these negotiations are continuing because a deal is still possible and we will continue to negotiate until that ceases to be the case.”

Trade deal discussions are entering their final days, with both sides hoping to overcome the final significant differences. 

Taoiseach’s comments

Speaking to reporters in Cork this morning, the Taoiseach said “the issues that remain to be resolved will not easily be resolved”. 

“The situation is serious and the issues are ones that have bedeviled the process from the beginning in terms of level playing field, in terms of fisheries and of course the dispute resolution mechanism to deal with the level playing field issues,” Martin said. 

Overall I think it’s in the best interest of all concerned that a proper trade deal is agreed.

“Our respective economies across Europe and within the UK would suffer unnecessarily in my view in the event of a no-deal… I think it would be a significant failure if we were to end up with a no-deal.” 

The current situation

The trade talks between the EU and the UK remain deadlocked with the risk of a no-deal scenario still a possibility.

EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier and his UK counterpart David Frost worked late into last night on talks in Brussels as they sought to close out a deal after eight months of intense talks.

Barnier briefed ambassadors from EU member states at a pre-dawn meeting, after talks with Frost broke up last night.

Negotiations resumed in Brussels yesterday after Johnson and von der Leyen gave the green light for talks to resume during a phone call on Saturday.

Both sides hope to establish a trade relationship with zero tariffs and zero quotas in the hopes of avoiding major disruptions from 1 January.

Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney told RTÉ News this morning that Barnier had indicated that the current situation was “very downbeat”.

“I would say he is very gloomy, and obviously very cautious about the ability to make progress today,” he said.

EU Commissioner Mairéad McGuinness echoed Coveney’s remarks, saying that the possibility for a deal to be agreed was “not looking good”.

“I think the reason it’s not looking good is because the UK are failing to understand the significance of the three outstanding issues and the need for the UK to compromise,” she also told RTÉ.

The core stumbling blocks have remained the same over the last number of months: the ‘level-playing field’ provisions, a dispute mechanism and fisheries.

Reports last night that there had been an agreement between the two sides about fisheries later emerged to be untrue. 

The UK’s two domestic bills

The House of Commons tonight voted to reject the Lords’ amendments to the Internal Market Bill; essentially rejecting to remove clauses that contravene the Northern Ireland Protocol contained in the Withdrawal Agreement. 

This was expected to happen: the UK government said earlier today that if a trade deal is struck, it would remove the clauses in the bill that relate to State aid. 

This morning, the UK government announced that Cabinet minister Michael Gove would travel to Brussels to discuss issues relating to Northern Ireland trade post-Brexit.

Gove was to engage in discussions with European Commission vice president Maroš Šefčovič: both men are co-chairs of the EU-UK Joint Committee, which is examining how the Withdrawal Agreement should be implemented, including the NI Protocol. 

Following those discussions, the UK government has said it is prepared to remove or “deactivate” three controversial clauses from the UK Internal Market Bill.

In a statement released this afternoon, the British government said: “Discussions continue to progress and final decisions are expected in the coming days.

If the solutions being considered in those discussions are agreed, the UK Government would be prepared to remove Clause 44 of the UK Internal Market Bill, concerning export declarations.
The UK Government would also be prepared to deactivate Clauses 45 and 47, concerning State aid, such that they could be used only when consistent with the United Kingdom’s rights and obligations under international law.

“Good progress continues to be made regarding the decision as to which goods are ‘at risk’ of entering the EU market. Talks continue this afternoon.

“In the light of those discussions, the Government will keep under review the content of the forthcoming Taxation Bill.”

The Taxation Bill, which hasn’t been published yet, is a money bill meaning peers cannot amend it.

The UK had previously accepted that provisions in the Internal Market Bill violated the Withdrawal Agreement, but said it needed a “legal safety net” for a no-deal Brexit.

The House of Lords has voted to remove the offending clauses, but the British government says it will restore them when the bill is re-submitted in the House of Commons later today.

The EU says the clauses are a fundamental breach of trust and imperil the wider trade negotiation and has taken Britain to court over the issue.

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EU Summit

Negotiations are continuing ahead of an EU summit on Thursday, when any deal – or the failure to find one – will be put to the leaders of the 27 member states.

The Taoiseach will be travel to Brussels on Wednesday evening to attend this summit. 

Any one of the leaders of the EU member states can veto a final trade deal.

A source close to the talks told the AFP news agency that the situation was “very difficult” and that negotiations are in their “last useful days”.

“We are on a very narrow path and it is impossible to predict the outcome,” the source said.

Others indicated that the hardest issue was how to guarantee fair trade in future ties and establish a quick penalty mechanism if either side were to backtrack on environmental or health standards.

Britain is reluctant to accept a broad and binding arrangement, seeing it as an infringement on its sovereignty after 47 years of EU membership.

“In essence, if the talks fail now, the two sides didn’t manage to agree what constitutes foul play and what to do about it,” an EU diplomat said.

Without a deal, tariffs would be levied on the huge volumes of trade passing between the UK and Europe from 2021.

Travellers between both sides would also be affected with further passport delays and red tape for foreign residents and businesses.

Contains reporting from Gráinne Ní Aodha, Orla Dwyer and © AFP 2020.

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