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From tigers in the tank to no 'Christmas-tree' EU report: A wild week in Brexit talks

Agreement on momentum, but it doesn’t take too deep a look to see the tensions.

Image: Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

ALTHOUGH NO GREAT rows broke into the mainstream news agenda this week, bits of post-Brexit trade deal nuggets burst forth at a number of interesting events this week.

Firstly, we had the hour-long meeting of UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

Although both sides agreed that because there would be no extension to the transition period at the end of this year that talks needed more “momentum”, even on this, there was some disagreement.

Then, the Duchy of Lancaster with responsibilities for Brexit Michael Gove gave evidence to the Northern Ireland Affairs committee – which was illuminating in showing how little we still don’t know.

And on that same day, the European Commission announced a report into its aims for the second phase of Brexit talks and its future with the UK after that; EU officials said they were happy it didn’t look like “a Christmas tree,” ie, that it didn’t have too many bells and whistles to it, but was coherent in what it was asking for.

At this briefing, it was said that a “ready, legal text [for a trade deal] was needed by 31 October” – which was a previous date for the UK to formally leave the EU (this instead happened on 31 January this year).

Gove in committee

“What does the government mean by ‘unfettered access’?” was the first question Gove was asked by the Northern Ireland Affairs committee this week. His answer was a clear reaffirmation that there would be no checks from NI to GB – but what happens in the other direction is still unclear.

“Goods from Northern Ireland businesses should be able to [be] circulated freely in the rest of the United Kingdom’s internal market,” said Gove.

He continued:

Unfettered access means there would be no discrimination towards Northern Ireland businesses or citizens, [whether] it comes from a good from Belfast or Ballymena… [travelling] from Belfast to Liverpool, there should be no requirement for any type of check or any interruption in the free-flow of that good into the UK.

“No import declarations, no entry summary declarations, no tariffs, no customs checks, no regulatory checks, no additional approvals,” Gove said definitively, with his secretary of state adding that Northern Ireland businesses should see no changes.

Gove said that this would not threaten the integrity of the EU’s market – but was less clear on his own country’s internal customs market.

An oversimplification of where we are with checks makes sense, as the UK looks to press on with talks. Boris Johnson told the European Parliament earlier in the week that they needed to put an “oomph” into trade talks, and put “a tiger in the tank” – or, as he actually phrased it, “un tigre dans le moteur”.

European Council President Charles Michel agreed to put a tiger in the tank, but added they wouldn’t do this if it meant they would be buying “a pig in a poke”.

At a press briefing announcing the EU’s report on the future relationship, Chair of the Committee on Foreign Affairs and the UK Coordination Group David McAllister asked what the point was of putting a tiger in the tank: “Let’s put some tigers in the tank, but indeed we need to know in which direction the car should drive”.

Johnson had also suggested that with this “tiger” in tow, the EU and UK could conclude talks by July – a mere month away.

The European Union has brushed this suggestion aside.

“Beyond the commendable use of idioms,” Kati Piri, co-rapporteur and member of the UK Coordination Group said, “the UK Prime Minister failed to explain how he wants to reach a deal in six weeks. So we are very much looking forward to that, to those details… the ball is in the court of the United Kingdom.” 

The EU’s UK ambassador told a London conference that “the negotiating table was empty” and an October deadline was more realistic to avoid an economically damaging no-deal split at the end of year.

“The United Kingdom has confirmed that they do not want to extend the transition,” Joao Vale de Almeida said by video link from Brussels.

If you do a countdown, and you count the need for ratification time, it means that we need to have a deal by, say, the end of October.

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Skinny and sticky issues

This might sound familiar, but any trade agreement would have to be ratified by the 27 EU member nations and the European and UK parliaments before entering into force.

The EU ambassador said Britain’s desire to reach a bare-bones agreement that focused on trade and avoided broader issues made the talks even harder.

“Sometimes skinny deals are more difficult to negotiate than larger deals,” Vale de Almeida said.

In a more comprehensive deal you can find better trade-offs, you can accommodate different interests.
When you are talking about 28 countries, a comprehensive deal is more likely to produce a consensual result.

Johnson personally joined the talks for the first time last week in a self-professed effort to give more “oomph” to the stalled process.

Four rounds of negotiations have made little headway.

Britain wants to stay as distant from the bloc as possible while still preserving favourable trade ties.

Brussels says it will only grant the UK beneficial trade terms if it abides by EU rules on environmental standards and other issues that make up a “level playing field”.

Britain’s environment minister George Eustice confirmed on Thursday that London was looking to set its own regulations once the post-Brexit transition period ends.

“It does give us an opportunity – once we will get over the shock of leaving the European Union – the opportunity to start to think about doing things in a different way, innovate in policy in different ways,” Eustice told parliament.

“We will have an opportunity to do things a bit differently and I think better, and we can demonstrate that.”

- with reporting from AFP

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