After last week’s report on the UK’s and EU’s negotiating positions prior to the first round of talks on the future relationship between the two parties, it is time to evaluate the progress made which, according to EU negotiator Michel Barnier, was “very constructive.”
After the talks concluded, in a press conference on Thursday, Barnier said: “We noted that there are some points of convergence on some of our objectives,” but he immediately countered this by expressing his grave concerns over the “serious divergences” between the two negotiating teams. A fully encompassing agreement seems far on the horizon.
Some of the main sticking points include the two sides’ interpretations on the level playing field for British and European companies, the role of the European Court of Justice and other legislative issues, governance of the future agreement and the future of mutual access to British and European waters for fisheries.
On the matter of the level playing field, Barnier made the following statement: “We had agreed with the U.K. that we want to prevent trade distortions and unfair competitive advantage. We also agreed that we would keep high standards.” He went on to say that “the U.K. said that it wants to keep the same ambition of high standards but ... doesn’t want to take those undertakings in a common agreement and doesn’t want a proper mechanism in order to respect those standards.” He stressed that this is “a question of trust.”
The British team made clear its ambition for the UK to stay outside the jurisdiction of EU laws and for the European Court of Justice to not play a role within any future treaty. Barnier raised concern that the British position on the role of the EU court could impede “the level of ambition of our cooperation” on joint security efforts e.g. fighting crime, terrorism and money laundering.
Then there is the politically sensitive issue of fishing rights. The UK aims for a system equal to the EU-Norway fisheries agreements which are negotiated on an annual basis. This is something Barnier regards as impractical due to the higher number of fish stocks that would have to be negotiated on in the British and European waters.
On the governance of a future agreement the two sides also seem to be miles apart. Whereas the UK has clarified its desire for agreements concluded per sector (case-by-case), the EU foresees a global agreement on the basis of “being practical” according to Barnier.
Furthermore, the Frenchman argued such governance structure would provide legal certainty and simplify future issues. In the case of a series of “mini-deals” as proposed by the UK, the EU is concerned this will impede the ratification of the agreements as national parliaments might want to jump in and have a say.
Despite the significantly different approaches to the negotiations on the aforementioned issues, Barnier said he remains confident an agreement can be reached by the end of the year.
Next time the UK will play at home as the next negotiation round is scheduled to take place from 18-20 March in London, stay tuned.