Brussels turns up the heat on Brexit talks

Brussels will push Britain to engage in detailed talks on access to UK fishing waters and other top EU priorities this week, warning that the two sides’ negotiations on a future relationship will stall unless work on all key topics advances in parallel.

Ahead of a third negotiating round starting on Monday, EU officials said Brussels was wary of British efforts to make rapid headway on securing a trade agreement, retaining access to the bloc’s aviation market and advancing other core UK concerns, including energy, while leaving fish and other issues in the slow lane.

“We need to see that there is a willingness on the UK side to make progress — we were very disappointed with their attitude in the last round [of talks],” said one EU official. “We need to see progress in parallel on all areas, otherwise the talks will slow down.”

On energy, the UK is seeking agreements with the EU on electricity and gas trading, as well as on nuclear energy co-operation. The EU negotiating mandate also foresees that a future relationship deal will cover these issues. 

Both sides have emphasised the need to make as much progress as possible in the future relationship talks ahead of an EU-UK summit in June but positions remain far apart, with a matter of months left to conclude a deal. 

Brussels diplomats said the EU had now accepted that the UK was unlikely to seek an extension to its post-Brexit transition period due to end on December 31, despite the risk of Britain crashing out of the bloc’s customs union and single market without a trade agreement. 

EU diplomats believe that any trade deal would probably need to be struck by October to be ratified in time. 

“It’s clear [the UK] wants to show progress by June on the [free trade agreement], aviation and energy and then say there is no need for an extension, and that a deal can be done on these points,” said the EU official.

Britain insists it is fully committed to the talks and that the EU’s frustrations are based on the UK’s determination to fight for its own vision of the future relationship: one that safeguards the country’s independent, sovereign status and prioritises regulatory autonomy. 

“We do not recognise the suggestion that we have not engaged with the EU in any area,” said a UK spokesperson. “We will continue to negotiate constructively to find a balanced solution which reflects the political realities on both sides.”

While Brussels published a draft treaty covering the entire future-relationship in March, Britain has sent over texts in batches, asking that the EU not share them with the bloc’s national governments.

David Frost, the UK’s chief negotiator, said on Twitter on Saturday that Britain had shared draft legal proposals with Brussels that “cover the full ground of the negotiations”.

He also said the UK had shared a draft “fisheries framework agreement”, something the EU has been requesting for weeks.

UK prime minister Boris Johnson has ruled out any agreement that guarantees EU fishermen’s long-term access to British waters, insisting the focus should be on annual negotiations.

He has also rejected EU demands for a binding “level playing field” of labour market, environmental and competition standards that would draw heavily on European law. 

Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, has complained that Britain’s stance abandons chunks of a non-binding political declaration on the future relationship that Mr Johnson agreed with EU leaders last year.

Mr Barnier has been clear that the EU will never agree a trade deal with Britain unless access to UK fishing waters and the level playing field arrangements are settled to the bloc’s satisfaction. 

“Britain is only interested in talking about a couple of things of interest to the UK; they try to disregard the much broader set of issues laid out in the political declaration,” said one EU diplomat.

The third round of negotiations comes after a second set last month during which the EU complained there had been little progress on the bloc’s priorities.

The first round of talks happened in March, before the coronavirus crisis escalated, and involved face-to-face meetings between the two sides’ negotiators. Since then, the talks have been held on a virtual basis.

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