Vulcan Insight

Cautious optimism takes over in final negotiation weeks

17 December 2020

European citizens and businesses may find some additional gifts under their Christmas trees this year if all works out. Not only is the European Medicines Agency set to approve the first COVID-19 vaccine for Europe on Monday, but EU and UK negotiators may finally be close to agreeing the post-Brexit trade relationship.

After months of growing pessimism on both sides of the English Channel over whether chief negotiators Michel Barnier and David Frost would manage to reconcile the deep divisions between the UK Government’s vision for a post-Brexit “Global Britain” and the European Union’s protection of its coveted Single Market and Customs Union, a “very narrow path” to an agreement has now emerged according to European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

Speaking to MEPs on Wednesday morning, she countered growing frustration among Parliamentarians over the delay and rapidly fading time left to scrutiny and ratify a deal, arguing that negotiators had already “found a way forward on most issues” and that it was, thus, the Commission’s responsibility to citizens and businesses to “continue trying.” With only fishing rights and safeguards for fair competition outstanding, about 95% of issues have so far been agreed upon. In fact, according to President von der Leyen, issues linked to governance have largely been resolved in the past days. Recognising the complexities of the remaining two issues, however, she did have to concede that it was still impossible to say whether an agreement could be reached or not.

The negotiations continue to be difficult on the fisheries issue, with the main sticking points being annual quotas and the UK’s demands for vessels to be UK-flagged, crewed by UK crews and landed in the UK for processing. That being said, slow but steady progress is being made on the two pillars of the level playing field requirements.

On state aid, progress has been made based on common principles, guarantees of domestic enforcement and a mechanism for autonomous remedies which would allow each party to independently take retaliatory measures, such as tariffs, against the other if they believe that the other’s state aid actions undercut free trade. On standards, the parties have managed to agree on a strong mechanism of non-regression to ensure that the EU’s “high labour, social and environmental standards will not be undercut” by the UK. Uncertain discussions continue, however, on making these safeguards future-proof.

The next few days will be decisive in navigating the narrow path to an agreement on the UK’s post-Brexit trade, social, foreign policy, security and defence relationship with the European Union.

As if not difficult enough, the European Parliament this week placed a Sunday cliff edge at the end of that path. The Resolution, adopted by the leaders of Parliament’s major parties on Thursday, warns negotiators that Parliament will only be willing to hold an extraordinary plenary in “case an agreement is reached by midnight on Sunday 20 December” to “consider” whether to ratify a deal. Parliament is deeply upset over the prospect of being rushed into having to “undemocratically” scrutinise and ratify any last-minute deal before the end of the year.

As a result, according to German Chair of the Trade Committee, Bernd Lange, if Parliament does not get a final text for scrutiny by Monday, “then there will be no deal.” If that should be the case, Parliament and Member States are currently working on time-limited, reciprocal contingency measures to ensure a basic continuation of air and road connectivity as well as fisheries.