Brexit: UK-EU trade talks down to the wire

Published: 3 December 2020

Post Desk : Pressure is mounting on the UK and EU negotiating teams to finalise a post-Brexit trade deal.

Talks went on late into Wednesday evening at the business department in central London.

The two sides are urgently seeking compromises in key areas before current trading rules expire at the end of December.

Fishing rights, competition rules and how an agreement should be enforced remain outstanding issues.

The two sides have been locked in talks since March to determine their future relations once the UK’s Brexit transition periods ends on 31 December.

Ireland’s foreign affairs minister said there was a “good chance” a deal between the two sides could be agreed in the coming days.

Speaking to Ireland’s Newstalk Radio, Simon Coveney said the EU needed to “hold our nerve” and trust its chief negotiator Michel Barnier.

“I believe if we do that, there’s a good chance that we can get a deal across the line in the next few days,” he added.

Mr Coveney is due in Paris on Thursday for Brexit discussions with his French counterpart Jean-Yves Le Drian.

Boris Johnson has said the UK remains “absolutely committed” to “getting a deal if we can”.

Speaking on Wednesday, the prime minister said the EU side “know what the UK bottom line is,” as talks continued in what is seen as a crucial week.

Negotiators got back to work in London on Thursday morning – face-to-face talks have been ongoing since the weekend after a week-long pause.

Discussions had to move entirely online after Mr Barnier was forced into self-isolation after one of his colleagues tested positive for Covid-19.

Pizzas were delivered to a central London venue late on Wednesday evening, as the two teams continued to haggle over the details of a deal.

Fishing rights have been a key stumbling block in the talks and have continued to be a major issue as negotiations enter their endgame.

The two sides are continuing to haggle over how much access European fishing boats should have to British waters, and how much they would be allowed to catch from next year.

They are also at odds over how closely the UK should have to follow the EU’s social, labour, and environmental standards after the transition.

Negotiators are also seeking to agree how commitments in the deal should be enforced – with the EU seeking a robust regime for resolving disputes.

Labour’s position
On Thursday, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer told reporters: “If the choice is a deal or no deal, then a deal is obviously in the national interest”.
He said he was “consulting across the Labour Party” on whether the party should back a deal if it comes to a vote in the Commons, and would decide after examining the contents of the deal.

He denied Labour was split over the issue, after reports he was planning to ask his MPs to vote in favour but some shadow cabinet members want to abstain.

“We’ve pulled together incredibly over the last few months through difficult decisions, and we’ll do so on this decision again,” he added.

The government has not confirmed how it intends to ratify a deal in Parliament.

But the UK’s chief negotiator Lord David Frost has said he assumed MPs would have to approve a law to implement “at least some elements” of a deal.

Brexit bill controversy
The negotiations are continuing ahead of a politically sensitive moment next week, when a controversial piece of Brexit legislation returns to the Commons.

The Internal Market Bill, which would allow ministers to override sections of the UK’s withdrawal agreement, will come back before MPs next Monday.

The publication of the bill in September sent shockwaves through the talks, and led to the EU Commission beginning legal proceedings against the UK.

But on Thursday, Commons leader Jacob Rees Mogg said the government intends to reinsert contentious clauses taken out of the bill by the House of Lords.

The PM’s spokesman added the bill was a “legal safety net” to protect the UK internal market, in case talks about detailed arrangements for the Irish border break down.

The government could also publish a new taxation bill next week with similar powers to override the withdrawal agreement in the areas of customs and VAT.

EU leaders are due to meet next Thursday in Brussels for a scheduled summit.