BRUSSELS (Reuters) – Negotiations between the European Union (EU) and ex-member Britain over new trade arrangements from next year are at an impasse due to disagreements and the coronavirus crisis, according to diplomats and officials in the bloc’s hub Brussels.
Halted when the epidemic started, the EU’s tortuous Brexit talks with Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government were renewed a week ago but have quickly hit snags, the sources said.
“We are at an impasse,” said one diplomat following the negotiations aimed at agreeing new trading terms between Britain and the 27 member states of the bloc from 2021 when London’s current, status-quo transition period after Brexit ends.
“There are plenty of minor technical details where we could find solutions. But on the fundamental goals each side is trying to achieve – the differences are enormous. Things cannot move without a political push. And it’s missing.”
After last week’s talks, chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier warned that London had to budge to bridge gaps for a deal to be sealed in the little time available.
Johnson’s spokesman countered on Monday that the London team was ready to keep talking “but that doesn’t make us any more likely to agree to the EU’s proposals in areas where they are not taking into account the UK’s status as an independent state.”
“Clearly there will need to be political movement on the EU’s side to move negotiations forward, particularly on fisheries and level playing field issues in order to help find a balanced solution.”
More negotiations are due to take place by early June.
EU officials note there is still time for London and Brussels to meet a deadline at the end of that month to agree on extending negotiations beyond the end of the year.
But Johnson, who had a life-threatening bout of COVID-19 and is under fire at home for his handing of the outbreak – has ruled that out.
“Maybe we should just believe him when he says he won’t extend the transition period,” said an EU official involved in the negotiations. “In which case, we are a bit puzzled as to what comes next … The tight schedule is even more tricky now with coronavirus, there is no space to waste time.”
NO BREAKTHROUGH IN SIGHT
While the bloc says only a relatively modest free trade agreement is possible before the end of the year, it attaches conditions to it – including on rigid guarantees of fair competition – that have been rejected by Britain.
There has been no progress in talks on these so-called level playing field provisions, according to the EU sources, or on guarantees for personal data protection as well as human rights.
While London is seeking agreements on the various areas it finds beneficial, the bloc insists on a single, overarching deal that would cover more ground.
Among a myriad of contentious issues, the bloc refuses Britain’s request for continued access to the EU’s police and border database, the Schengen Information System.
It says coronavirus restrictions on physical meetings and the strain it has put on governments mean the necessary ratification of any deal by EU states and the European Parliament would require more time than earlier thought.
From its side, Britain has refused a request by the European Commission for an office in Belfast to allow EU experts to monitor controls on the sensitive Irish border.
“Talks are not advancing and there seems little idea for the time being on how to get a breakthrough,” said a second EU diplomat.
(Reporting by Gabriela Baczynska; Additional reporting by Elizabeth Piper in London; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)