EU and UK trade talks inched onwards under renewed pressure Monday (21 December) as transport chaos triggered by the emergence of a more contagious variant of the coronavirus in Britain overshadowed efforts to reach a Brexit deal.
Only 10 days are left until 1 January when Britain will leave the EU single market and customs union and hopes of securing a new arrangement suffered a blow as another deadline passed.
EU and British negotiators remained in Brussels, with talks still blocked over the right of European crew to continue fishing in Britain’s rich waters, as well as concerns over fair trade rules.
Without a deal, Britain’s links to the European Union end at midnight on 31 December (11:00 pm UK time) with a new tariff barrier that will sharpen the big shock of unravelling a half-century of EU membership.
A Sunday deadline set by the European Parliament, which could refuse to approve the agreement, expired without an agreement being found, leaving no time for MEPs to ratify an eventual deal before1 January.
“Political games from Westminster have wasted too much time,” said German MEP Manfred Weber, who leads the conservative EPP group in parliament, warning that members would take their time and not “rubber stamp” a text.
But Weber also said parliament “will remain constructive partners” and that “alternative procedures are possible” — though what they were was not yet agreed.
As long as a deal is found in the next hours or days, European sources said this could involve a provisional implementation of a pact with MEPs having their say in January.
“Broadly speaking, the EU side is of the view that the only deadline that now matters is 31 December,” said Mujtaba Rahman of the Eurasia Group, a consultancy.
Whatever the case, the EU has finalised interim plans to manage road and air transport for six months and fishing for a year in the event of a no deal — but these would also require an agreement from the UK to reciprocate.
“We remain very far from an accord,” warned a European diplomat, who said that some on the EU-side were weighing whether it was time to walk away.
“Negotiating through exhaustion is not very healthy,” the diplomat added.
The talks in Brussels continued as Britain was effectively cut off from the world, after Prime Minister Boris Johnson said a highly contagious mutation of the coronavirus was spreading in the UK.
The emergency left holiday travellers stranded and blocked goods crossing the Channel, presaging the potential effects of a failure to secure a last-minute trade deal.
France’s snap decision to halt trade across the Channel forced Britain to bring forward “Operation Stack”, the contingency plan drawn up to deal with anticipated freight tailbacks in the port city of Dover in the event of a no-deal Brexit.
“It’s a tragedy what’s happening in Britain, and this Brexit is a tragedy, we see it more and more every day,” France’s EU commissioner Thierry Breton told BFM Business, when asked about the new outbreak.
If Britain “had chosen to remain in the European Union… today we could have helped them,” Breton argued.
Brexit supporters accused France of exploiting the crisis to try and force trade concessions.
Restriction of freight movements “appears political,” tweeted the anti-EU Bruges Group think tank.
With just days before negotiators should head home for Christmas — assuming the borders reopen — Johnson insisted that Britain’s position has not budged.
“It’s vital that everybody understands that the UK has got to be able to control its own laws, completely, and also that we have got to be able to control our own fisheries,” Johnson told a news conference.
Britain intends to assume control over its waters on 1 January, but is ready to allow continued access to EU fishing fleets for a transitional period under new terms.
UK negotiator David Frost wants Britain to take back more than half the fish currently assigned under the EU quota system, under a three-year agreement.
The European side insists the UK accept getting back only a quarter of the fish quota — and that the transition period should last six years.
Hubert Carré, head of France’s top commercial fishing lobby, said this was already too much.
“We’re wondering whether a no deal is better than a bad deal,” he told BFM, accusing the British of being “very greedy”.