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EU leaders demand Britain budge on post-Brexit deal as UK 'disappointed' at summit conclusion

EU leaders met today in Brussels for a two-day summit.

Michel Barnier speaking during a media conference at the EU summit
Michel Barnier speaking during a media conference at the EU summit
Image: Kenzo Tribouillard via PA Images

Updated Oct 15th 2020, 7:54 PM

EUROPEAN LEADERS HAVE demanded Britain give ground on far trade rules to unblock stalled post-Brexit negotiations, angering London and putting the fate of the talks in jeopardy. 

The 27 bloc leaders arrived for a summit in Brussels expressing cautious optimism but, in their written conclusions, urged the EU and its member states to step up preparations for a chaotic “no deal” exit.

Their calls for urgency were balanced however by an invitation that Britain keep talking next week in London and in Brussels the week after that.

“As of tomorrow I will be speaking with my counterpart David Frost. On Monday, we’ll be in London for the full week, including the weekend if necessary,” the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier said after addressing the leaders.

“That’s what I have proposed to the British team,” Barnier said.

The invite comes after a warning by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson that he could walk away from the negotiations unless the results of the summit pointed to a breakthrough. 

The EU never recognised his deadline and in their conclusions put the onus on Johnson to rescue a deal as time runs out.

In an unusually testy tweet, the UK’s Frost said he was “disappointed” by the summit conclusions, underlining that they “no longer committed to working ‘intensively’ to reach a future partnership” as had been earlier promised. 

Frost also scoffed at the EU’s charge that only Britain should budge, calling it “an unusual approach to conducting a negotiation”.

Johnson would decide his next move on Friday, he said.

‘Good compromise’ 

Tempers flared despite signals that the Europeans seemed to open to moving on one of their hard-held red lines, fishing. 

President Emmanuel Macron of France hinted at possible compromise on the thorny issue of fishing rights, saying he was open to finding a “good compromise” that would ensure access for French fishermen to UK waters.

The insistence of France and other northern fishing nations on maintaining access to British waters has been a key stumbling block in the talks so far.

“We know that we will have to make an effort. This effort must be reasonable,” Barnier said.

Arriving at the summing this morning, Taoiseach Micheál Martin said that Brexit is a chief concern in the talks and that fisheries if of particular importance for Ireland.

“I’m looking forward to an assessment by Michel Barnier, our chief negotiator in relation to the state of play of those talks right now,” he said. 

The issues of considerable concern remain a level playing field that’s important for Europe, governance of any subsequent deal that will be arrived upon between the United Kingdom and Europe and clearly fisheries which is very important to us in Ireland. That our coastal communities are protected in an overall deal on Brexit through a sensible and fair fisheries deal. 

The European leaders have tried to keep Brexit off the agenda at their recent summits but, in a sign that the topic was heating up, were ordered to leave their phones out of the room during the discussion.

The official statement offers little to Johnson, dropping the line in an earlier draft that called for Barnier to “intensify” his discussions with Frost.

During the call to Johnson on the eve of the crunch talks, EU chief Ursula von der Leyen warned that there was “still a lot of work ahead of us”, adding that Brussels wants a deal but “not at any price”. 

In a surprising twist, as the summit got under way she was forced to leave the venue and self-isolate after a member of her office tested positive for coronavirus.

‘Approaching the runway’ 

Barnier said the talks could go on until the end of the October, the rough date set by the EU side in order to leave enough parliamentary time to ratify the deal before the Brexit transition expires on 31 December.

But the British side has accused Brussels of trying to force concessions by running down the clock.

Diplomats in recent days said there had been some movement from Britain, but not enough to warrant locking the negotiators into a so-called “diplomatic tunnel” to force the talks over the finish line. 

Rules of fair competition 

Britain left the European Union on 31 January, but Barnier and Frost have been locked in moths of inconclusive talks on a follow-on trade arrangement. 

If no deal is reached, trade rules will revert to the bare bones of World Trade Organization regulations.

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Both sides insist they are ready for this – and would prefer it to having to accept a bad deal – but experts forecast severe economic disruption.

Europe’s three main concerns are agreeing on the rules of fair competition, how these rules will be policed and securing access to UK waters for EU fishing fleets.

Britain wants to reassert sovereignty over its waters and refuse EU legal oversight over the deal – insisting it wants a simple trade deal of the kind the EU signed with Canada.

Brussels in turn stresses that Britain’s economy is far more integrated with and closer to the EU’s than Canada’s, and that its single market must be protected from British backsliding.

© – AFP 2020 with reporting by Rónán Duffy 

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Rónán Duffy

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