Following ten days of intensified talks on the EU-UK post-Brexit future relationship following their public fall-out a few weeks ago, Michel Barnier painted a gloomy picture of the current state play.
While not yet speaking publicly about the developments of his talks with David Frost in the past week, the EU’s Chief Brexit negotiator this week updated EU ambassadors as well as the European Parliament’s Brexit Coordination Group on the state of play. In his only public comments since the end of the negotiation round on Wednesday, Mr. Barnier tweeted that “despite EU efforts to find solutions, very serious divergences remain in Level Playing Field, Governance & Fisheries,” a sentiment that was shared separately by his UK counterpart David Frost.
According to reports, Mr. Barnier told ambassadors and MEPs that the UK Government had, in fact, once again gone back on earlier joint understandings, such as the need for a robust and independent competition authority in the UK.
With respect to the key outstanding issues of fisheries, the level playing field and governance, he acknowledged that there had not been any progress. On fisheries, specifically, he pushed back on reports over the weekend that he would be willing to park the negotiations on fishing rights and quotas until after an overall agreement has been reached. While such a concession seemed unlikely in any case considering Member State’s strong and long-standing opposition to the UK’s preference for zonal attachments and annual quota renegotiation.
In an even more downbeat tone, Barnier is said to have told both national EU ambassadors and MEPs that “there have been absolutely no positive developments” on the key issue of the level-playing field provisions, especially on non-regression where he said the UK had stepped back from previous understandings on environment, labour conditions, climate, tax.
According to MEPs speaking after the meeting, Mr. Barnier also doubts that the UK Government takes the EU’s internal timetable seriously. The EU institutions have long set mid-November as the absolute latest date for an agrrement in order to allow for its legal translation into all EU languages as well as scrutiny and ratification by the European Parliament.
In fact, it is now assumed that the UK Government’s strategy for the final stretch is to leave as many discussion fields open as possible and force a high-level political bargaining game with Commission President von der Leyen, German Chancellor Merkel and French President Macron on the three key stumbling blocks in the coming days. While such as high-level political meeting unlocked negotiations on Northern Ireland during the discussions on the EU-UK Withdrawal Agreement, they were targeted and matters of political decisions. In contrast, in the current negotiations, a wide swath of technical matters remain open, something that cannot be agreed at the political level.
Negotiations will reconvene in London on Monday, with Mr. Barnier believing that next week’s talks will be decisive. While an agreement seems unlikely based on the latest state of play, it is likely that there will be a hastily arranged high-level political intervention by the European Commission President during the week. Whether that will lead to any substantial developments remains to be seen.