Johnson and EU’s von der Leyen to meet in final bid to salvage trade pact

Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen on 5 December 2020. [Europe by Satellite]

Talks on a post-Brexit EU-UK trade deal are heading for a showdown later this week, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson heading to Brussels in a last-ditch attempt to thrash out an agreement.

After a lengthy phone call between Johnson and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on Monday evening (7 December), the two sides issued a joint statement that “the conditions for an agreement are not there due to remaining differences on critical issues.”

“We have asked our Chief Negotiators and their teams to prepare an overview of the remaining differences to be discussed in a physical meeting in Brussels in the coming days,” Johnson and von der Leyen added.

As has been the case since the start of the talks, future access of EU fishing fleets to UK waters, regulatory alignment – known as the ‘level playing field’  –  and the governance of a new agreement remain the key dividing lines.

Officials have indicated that little progress has been made since Saturday, when Johnson and von der Leyen tasked their negotiating teams with making a new push to reach an agreement.

It is unclear exactly when the meeting will take place, but it is almost certain to be held on either Wednesday or Thursday morning ahead of an EU leaders’ summit on Thursday (10 December).

Should the meeting lead to a final decision on a trade deal – of which the joint statement gives no indication – this will leave UK and EU lawmakers with only a couple of weeks to ratify it.

Failure to agree and ratify a new agreement by 31 December, when the post-Brexit transition period ends, would see EU-UK trade take place on World Trade Organisation terms, with tariffs and customs barriers.

In Westminster, meanwhile, the row between UK lawmakers over the controversial Internal Market bill, designed to govern trade within the four nations of the UK, resumed on Monday.

The European Commission launched legal proceedings against the UK in October over the legislation, which UK ministers have admitted would breach the terms of the Northern Ireland protocol in the  Withdrawal Agreement that took it out of the EU in January.

On Monday and Tuesday, the House of Commons is expected to reinstate sections of the bill removed by the UK’s upper house of Parliament, the House of Lords, last month, though this could lead to more parliamentary ping-pong between the two chambers.

In the meantime, Johnson’s government has promised to drop the sections of the bill that would allow UK ministers to unilaterally change the import and export procedures for goods between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, and amend elements of the Northern Ireland protocol relating to state aid – both provisions that would break the Withdrawal Agreement – but only if an EU-UK trade agreement is struck.

The UK insists that the bill is needed to avoid any disruption to internal UK trade.

The European Parliament, for its part, has said it will veto any trade deal with the UK unless Johnson’s government drops the provisions.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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