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Explainer: Is this the final throw of the dice before a post-Brexit deal is struck?

Why have things flared up this weekend, and are we actually close to an EU-UK trade deal?

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson. 31 January.
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson. 31 January.
Image: PA

HERE WE GO again.

There’s less than a month to go before the UK leaves the EU’s Single Market and Customs Union, having officially left the bloc in January.

Things seemed to have flared up this weekend – so what is going on?

To recap, since trade talks began almost 10 months ago, the core stumbling blocks have remained the same: the level-playing field provisions, a dispute mechanism and fisheries.

Now with just weeks left before the transition period ends – which was an arrangement where the UK could have one foot in the European Union and one foot out to give it time to prepare to leave – those three issues are still yet to be completely resolved.

Over 95% of the EU-UK trade deal has been agreed and drafted into a legal text.

A flare-up on Friday saw UK chief negotiator David Frost and the EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier jointly announce that they would ‘pause’ negotiations.

The final hurdle of Brexit talks was always going to end up being made by political leaders, as happened in the first round of Brexit talks.

A breakthrough was made over the Northern Ireland Protocol after then-Taoiseach Leo Varadkar met with UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson in Cheshire, after months of deadlock between the negotiating teams.

In this case, negotiators deferred to Johnson and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

Both leaders spoke yesterday, released a statement that said gaps remain, but that negotiations in Brussels would resume today and the two would speak again tomorrow evening.

belgium-eu-britain-brexit European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. Source: Julien Warnand

What’s happening here is that the political leaders are being asked to give negotiators a bit more wiggle room in order to strike a final deal. 

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, which one Tory MP said would be like “the EU marking its own homework”.
  • 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 arrangement here.

In the past few weeks, murmurings from politicians have suggested that progress has been made on the level-playing field issue, possibly the most contentious of the three. 

But reports from the confidential talks have suggested that demands from the French government over rights to the UK’s fishing waters may have created a new problem this week, just as a deal was about to be struck.

Any one of the leaders of the 27 EU member states can veto a final trade deal. Giving them access to the details of the deal before this vote takes place ensures that everyone is onside – which seems to be where this last-minute snag arose. 

“We know that 100% access to fishing waters in the UK maritime zone is finished,” European Affairs minister Clement Beaune told le Journal du Dimanche.

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“But we need lasting access. The British can’t have total access to our EU Single Market and exclude fish.”

Tory MP Andrew Bridgen suggested on RTÉ Radio One today that the UK government would grant this “lasting” access, though there has been some suggestion of a time-limited trial of various fishing arrangements. 

The 27 EU leaders are due to gather in Brussels on Thursday for a two-day summit planned to tackle their own budget dispute, but which will now once again be clouded by the post-Brexit trade talks.

If there is no trade deal between the EU and UK, trade between the two nations would have high tariffs set by the World Trade Organization. This could have a huge impact on Ireland’s highly lucrative dairy and beef sectors. 

But if the UK reverted to a no-free-trade deal relationship with the EU from 1 January, trade negotiations between the two regions would continue in the new year, as some sort of trading relationship would need to be built up due to the UK’s geographical proximity and the close relations that already existed when it was an EU member state.

Today, Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney suggested today that if Westminster passed either the contentious Internal Market Bill or the more recent Taxation bill, which contravene provisions in the Withdrawal Agreement, that he couldn’t see how the European Parliament could pass an EU-UK trade agreement.

Both the House of Commons and the European Parliament would need to vote to accept any EU-UK trade agreement before it can be ratified, and come into force.

But Coveney also said that if a trade deal was struck, that problems linked to those pieces of legislation “may find a way of disappearing”, suggesting that the EU is less concerned about those bills than it is about striking a deal, which is still the most likely outcome.

Current negotiations may rumble on from today right up until the European Council meeting on Thursday, which would give the UK time to pull its two contentious bills.

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