The EU and the UK will have to overcome “very serious” differences to agree on a new relationship, chief Brussels negotiator Michel Barnier warned on Thursday (5 May) after concluding the first round of negotiations.
Still, the Frenchman believed that “a good agreement” was still possible in light of the “constructive” talks wrapped up this week.
“To be completely frank with you, there are many and serious divergences,” Barnier told reporters after concluding the first four-day talks in Brussels. But he said this was “normal” after the first round.
A senior EU official explained that this initial encounter was useful to understand the details of each other’s negotiating mandates and detect where the big differences are.
Barnier said that both sides continued to clash over the level playing field, i.e the regulatory alignment on environment, labour, taxation or state aid rules; the role of the European Court of Justice and the European Court of Human Rights, fisheries and the overall shape of the agreement (governance).
Following the UK’s departure from the EU on 31 January, both sides are seeking a new agreement to access their respective markets, facilitate their cooperation in key areas and avoid major disruptions after the transition period expires on 31 December.
Barnier warned that businesses should step up their preparations for 1 January 2021 because the situation, even with an agreement, will be “very different” and the potential changes are being “underestimated”.
The agreement should be reached by the end of October so the deal can be ratified by the end of the year.
The UK has resisted aligning its future rulebook with Brussels, as the EU27 have demanded, in exchange for access to the EU’s internal market.
A UK government spokesperson said that “the UK team made clear that, on 1 January 2021, we would regain our legal and economic independence – and that the future relationship must reflect that fact.”
“These are going to be tough negotiations – this is just the first round. In some areas there seems to be a degree of common understanding of how to take the talks forward. In other areas, such as fishing, governance, criminal justice and the so-called ‘level playing field’ issues there are, as expected, significant differences.”
“The UK spent a lot of time this week insisting on their independence”, Barnier said and added: “nobody contests the UK independence”.
“The real question is not about the reciprocal independence, but what we do with our respective independence,” he said and called for agreeing on “ground rules” to make possible the future cooperation and “high standards” to protect citizens, companies and the planet.
“An agreement is still possible, even if difficult,” he said as he praised the “good quality” of the UK civil servants.
The negotiation was structured around eleven parallel tables, although the UK excluded the Foreign Affairs and Defence from this first round of talks.
The start of the talks came amid growing concerns about the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus across the world, which has forced cancellations of events, including the EU-India summit in Brussels.
Barnier said they are dealing with the crisis in a “very pragmatic way” and the planned negotiating rounds will depend on how the crisis evolves. “I don’t want to commit to anything.” The next round of negotiations is scheduled for 18 March in London.
He added that “we will take all the necessary precautions” to protect the health of the negotiators (around 120 from each side).
He then revealed he had a personal interest in risk analysis and risk prevention, as he had written a book on these issues a few years ago.
Together with the level playing field, fisheries is expected to be a serious bone of contention in the negotiations.
The EU wants to maintain the existing conditions to access the British waters, but the UK is ready to offer only annual agreements detailing the catch allowed per species.
Based on his previous experience as a minister in charge of fisheries, Barnier said the UK proposal was impractical and defended a “balanced solution” without giving further details.
UK negotiators also refused to commit formally to implementing rulings of the European Court of Human Rights and the EU Court of Justice.
Barnier noted that the differences on this are a serious matter, given that this would affect the cooperation of security forces or on criminal matters, as the Europeans want their judges to oversee sensitive issues such as the exchange of data.
London also disagrees with Brussels over the inclusion of all the elements of the new relationship under a single association agreement, and the UK prefers to sign sectorial agreements, similar to what the EU does with Switzerland.
Barnier defended the idea of having a more “durable” agreement and ensuring the “legal certainty” of the future relationship.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]