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Sunday 24 September 2023 Dublin: 16°C
Michel Barnier/Twitter Barnier took a break from talks in London last week, and "went looking for level playing fields..."
# level playing fields
'This is move week': Where are post-Brexit trade talks at right now?
It’s another crunch week on the Brexit front – so what are the sticking points?

WE’RE A MONTH on from the initial deadline that British Prime Minister Boris Johnson laid down, and two weeks on from the deadline the European Union had set.

And from the outside, we’re no closer to a post-Brexit trade deal. 

The virtual European Council meeting on Thursday of this week is seen as the latest deadline for an outcome to the trade talks – but many take the view that there is too much work left to have it all agreed in a neat package by the end of the week. 

Talks have been crawling forward since the summer, and though there has been some vague talk from the UK side of “progress in a positive direction in recent days”, not all that much has changed in the last few months. 

British chief negotiator David Frost still says the deal must respect “the sovereignty of the UK”, while the EU’s Michel Barnier is calling for one that respects the EU’s autonomy and protects its Single Market and Customs Union.

David Frost David Frost / Twitter David Frost / Twitter / Twitter

The three main stumbling blocks that have ground talks to a halt have been:

  • Level-playing field provisions: This is about the EU and UK agreeing the same set of rules on things like workplace standards and workers rights; environmental standards; and rules on State aid (so EU or UK firms don’t get an unfair advantage).
  • Governance: If the UK or EU have been accused of breaking the rules of any trade agreement they might reach, who will decide whether this accusation is fair, and what would the punishment for breaching rules of the agreement be? The UK does not want this to be the European Court of Justice.
  • Fisheries: There is a row over how many EU fishing boats the UK will allow into its waters, and how many fish it will allow them to catch. The UK wants to ‘take back control of its waters’, but the EU argues that European boats have fished in British waters since long before it joined the European Union. You can read Irish fishermen’s concerns about the fisheries deal here.

The reason they cannot agree on these issues comes down to the same issue, mentioned above: the UK’s pursuit of sovereignty, versus the EU’s attempt to protect its Single Market and Customs Union, versus concerns for Northern Ireland.

Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade Simon Coveney said at the weekend that this was “move week”, where some action needed to be taken, if progress were to be made at all.

Fine Gael TD Neale Richmond said that there are still “large gaps” between the two sides on the level-playing field and fisheries.

“The UK isn’t happy with the level of access that the EU wants, but 70% of the value of its catch and 50% of its quantity is sold into the Single Market,” he told

Richmond said that one area where progress has been made is the legal drafting that has been done. 

There’s a gap there to say ‘this is where fisheries and the level-playing field goes’, but 600 pages of what has been agreed has been drafted into legal text. The final 10% requires a political decision, and if we don’t have those, we won’t have a deal. 

Where are talks at now?

M Barnier Twitter / Michel Barnier Twitter / Michel Barnier / Michel Barnier

The UK left the EU on 31 January of this year. Its MEPs left the European Parliament, the UK has no Commissioner in the European Commission, and it isn’t a part of, for example, the EU’s initiative to buy Covid-19 vaccine doses and distribute them. 

The UK is still in the Customs Union and Single Market, meaning citizens and businesses are still availing of the four freedoms of the European Union (movement, capital, goods and services).

This period from 31 January-31 December 2020 is known as the transition period.

During this time, the EU and UK were to strike a trade deal that would replace the UK’s membership of the Single Market and Customs Union, and importantly, figure out how trade would work for Northern Ireland without the need for a hard border on the island of Ireland.

The transition period would also give businesses time to prepare themselves for whatever changes would come down the track, it was planned. 

When asked about the government’s campaign to make people aware of those Brexit changes, Richmond said the message was a difficult sell at this stage. 

How many times can you ask people to go back to the well to prepare to Brexit, while they have to deal with [the Covid-19 pandemic], which is really really tough? 

The Leavers have left

After it emerged that Dominic Cummings – credited with being the architect behind the Brexit vote in the 2016 referendum – and his Brexit colleague Lee Cain would be leaving No 10 Downing Street, many political commentators are claiming that this paves the way for Boris Johnson to soften his negotiation stance and agree a trade deal with the EU.

This cohort of commentators includes Nigel Farage. 

“The Leavers are leaving Downing Street,” the arch Brexiteer and former leader of both UKIP and the Brexit Party told talkRADIO

After saying that it was “very likely” that there would be a “pro-Brussels, pro-Dublin” president of the United States (referring to Joe Biden’s election win), Farage said: “I had this terrible sinking feeling over the weekend that Boris is very close to selling out on Brexit.”

There had been some suggestions that if Donald Trump had been reelected, Johnson would continue a hard line on post-Brexit trade talks. But without the man who referred to him as “Britain Trump” in office, Johnson would be less inclined to be so brave.

Though US president-elect Joe Biden may not be as close to the EU as some may hope, he and the Democrats have voiced support for the Good Friday Agreement; Taoiseach Micheál Martin even said that he mentioned it in their first phone call since the election.

Richmond says that Cummings and Cain are “less important” to Brexit talks than people may think, as they were “internal operators”.

99% of the EU don’t have a clue who Dominic Cummings and Lee Cain were. Now, it’s not good timing that there is this internal chaos [in 10 Downing Street]. If Johnson wants the deal, it’s there. What he has to decide is whether he can appease the ultras in his party.

The Internal Market Bill

Then there’s the tricky Internal Market Bill. 

The UK has proposed a Bill that would give a British minister control to give State aid to Northern Ireland businesses without consulting the EU, as well as decide what goods travelling from GB to NI would need custom declaration forms.

This is contrary to the Withdrawal Agreement that was struck between the EU and UK, and ratified by Westminster in January of this year.

As it stands, the UK House of Lords have voted to remove two clauses from the Bill that relate to Northern Ireland. 

Coveney told Sky News at the weekend:

“Even if we do get a new trade deal negotiated by both sides, if the British Government is determined to continue with their Internal Market Bill – to reintroduce parts of that Bill that were removed by the House of Lords this week – then, I think this is a deal that won’t be ratified by the EU.

Because there is no way the EU will agree to ratify a new agreement if the British Government is breaking the existing agreement that is not even 12 months old, and breaking international law by doing that.

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