UK-EU Brexit talks restart with just weeks to seal deal

Barnier-London [Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA/EFE]

Britain and the European Union will resume fraught post-Brexit trade talks on Thursday (22 October) after seven days lost to threats and brinkmanship, and with just weeks left to salvage an agreement.

The UK had been refusing since Friday to restart long-running negotiations over a future free trade deal, after EU leaders said at a summit the previous day that London must compromise on the outstanding issues.

Hopes of Brexit trade deal fade as EU leaders take hard line

The prospects of an EU-UK trade deal being agreed imminently faded on Thursday (15 October) after EU leaders took an uncompromising approach on the progress of talks.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson had signalled he was ready to abandon the process, but following a Wednesday phone call between the two sides’ top mediators his office said there was now a basis for continued talks.

EU has 'abandoned' trade pact with UK, says Johnson

The United Kingdom appeared to be on the brink of walking away from talks on a trade deal with the EU after Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Friday (16 October) that the EU had “abandoned the idea of a free trade deal.”

In a joint document, they agreed the UK’s David Frost and EU negotiator Michel Barnier would hold a new round of negotiations in London over the coming days, as both sides warn a deal must be struck by the end of the month.

“Talks will take place across all negotiating tables concurrently. Negotiations will take place daily including weekends, unless both sides agree otherwise,” the document said.

However, it cautioned that “nothing is agreed in these negotiations until a final overall agreement is reached”.

‘Within our grasp’

The breakthrough came hours after Barnier told a session of the European Parliament in Brussels that an agreement was “within our grasp” if both sides compromised.

Brexit trade talks back on after Barnier holds out olive branch

In a significant volte-face on Monday (19 October), EU and UK trade negotiators looked set to return to the table and resume talks on a post-Brexit trade deal, only a day after both sides appeared on the brink of abandoning the effort.

He also added the bloc would proceed on “the basis of legal texts”, satisfying British demands for an intensification of the process to finalise a treaty.

The extent of British state subsidies, how to arbitrate future differences and fishing rights remain key sticking points that could still thwart a deal being reached.

London has insisted it is willing to walk away if they cannot break the deadlock, and trade with the bloc using barebones arrangement governed by World Trade Organization quotas and tariffs.

However, such a no-deal Brexit scenario in just over two months could see a huge disruption to EU-UK business, just as the continent grapples with the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic.

Anxiety mounts

Britain formally left the EU in January but under the terms of its divorce will only be free of EU structures after nearly five decades of tight economic integration from 2021.

In the meantime it has been trying to agree the details of their future trading relationship.

Johnson refused an option to extend the transition period, and had set a mid-October deadline to strike a free trade deal. The EU has said an agreement must be reached by November to give parliaments on both sides of the Channel time to ratify it.

Anxiety has been mounting about the likely repercussions of “no deal”, with European fishermen notably warning they face ruin if deprived of access to Britain’s rich waters.

On the UK side, businesses complain the government is failing to prepare on an array of fronts. Even with a trade deal, British companies will still need to wade through reams of new red tape to ensure their goods comply with EU standards.

Senior minister Michael Gove joined Johnson on a conference call with 250 business leaders on Tuesday and reportedly told them that Brexit was like moving house — hassle at first, but worth it in the end to live somewhere nicer.

That went down “like a bucket of cold sick”, according to one participant cited in the Financial Times.

'Bucket of cold sick': firms scorn UK over Brexit plans

Hammered by the coronavirus pandemic, UK businesses face a double-whammy from Brexit and are furious at the government for insisting the onus lies on them to get ready for life outside the EU.

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