British negotiators refused to budge last night after EU diplomat Michel Barnier called for a delay in the UK’s departure from Brussels rules.
He claimed progress in talks about a future UK-EU trade deal had been “disappointing” after a round of discussions by video conference broke up yesterday with a string of issues unresolved. Bitter differences remained over the EU’s demand for unchanged access for European fishing fleets to UK waters and the bloc’s refusal to agree to a free trade deal similar to its existing arrangements with Canada.
Downing Street sources said that the Government remained committed to ending the post-Brexit transition period of continuing Brussels rules on schedule at the end of this year.
Mr Barnier hit out at Boris Johnson’s negotiating team in an online news conference after the latest round of talks broke up at lunchtime yesterday.
He said that the “clock was ticking” and urged the UK Government to extend the transition period if it was not prepared to shift on the outstanding issues.
“The UK cannot refuse to extend the position, and at the same time, slow down discussions on important areas.
“The UK cannot impose this short, brief timeline, and at the same time not budget to make progress on the topics that are of importance to the EU,” the EU chief Brexit negotiator said.
Mr Barnier said that “progress this week was disappointing” in four areas, including the EU’s demand for a “level playing field” of regulations, unchanged fishing quotas and a continuing power for the European Court of Justice to intervene in trade disputes.
“The UK did not wish to commit seriously on a number of fundamental points,” he said.
“We need to find solutions on the most difficult topics. The UK cannot refuse to extend transition and at the same time slow down discussions on important areas.”
Mr Barnier accused the Prime Minister’s chief EU negotiator David Frost of having “failed to engage substantially” on the subject of a regulatory level playing field.
Whitehall sources described the talks as “constructive” but admitted substantial disagreements remained.
A UK Government spokesman said: “This was a full and constructive negotiating round, conducted remotely by video conference, and with a full range of discussions across all the issues, on the basis of the extensive legal texts provided by both sides in recent weeks.
“However, limited progress was made in bridging the gaps between us and the EU.
“Our assessment is that there was some promising convergence in the core areas of a Free Trade Agreement, for example on goods and services trade, and related issues such as energy, transport, and civil nuclear cooperation.
“We regret however that the detail of the EU’s offer on goods trade falls well short of recent precedent in FTAs it has agreed with other sovereign countries.
“This considerably reduces the practical value of the zero tariff zero quota aspiration we both share.
“There are also significant differences of principle in other areas. For example we will not make progress on the so called ‘level playing field’ and the governance provisions until the EU drops its insistence on imposing conditions on the UK which are not found in the EU’s other trade agreements and which do not take account of the fact that we have left the EU as an independent state.
“On fisheries, the EU’s mandate appears to require us to accept a continuance of the current quotas agreed under the Common Fisheries Policy.
“We will only be able to make progress here on the basis of the reality that the UK will have the right to control access to its waters at the end of this year.
“We now need to move forward in a constructive fashion.
“The UK remains committed to a deal with a free-trade agreement at its core.
“We look forward to negotiating constructively in the next round beginning on 11 May and to finding a balanced overall solution which reflects the political realities on both sides.”
Senior figures in Brussels have warned the coronavirus pandemic means the timetable for ending the transition period cannot be met, but Mr Johnson has remained opposed to any further delay.
Two more week-long rounds of negotiations between the sides are scheduled, starting on May 11 and June 1.