Vulcan Insight

Tensions in Brussels as Brexit negotiations commence

6 March 2020

The first round of talks on the future relationship between the UK and the EU began formally in Brussels this week, with UK chief Brexit negotiator David Frost meeting with his EU counterpart Michel Barnier on Monday. The European Commission and the UK government have agreed on a relatively intensive calendar of negotiations over the coming months, with talks taking place every two to three weeks, alternating the location between Brussels and London. The hundred strong UK negotiation team that arrived in Brussels this week, was divided into eleven different groups, which will deep dive into particular policy areas with their European counterparts.

While the two sides managed to conclude the withdrawal agreement under significant pressure last year, the breadth of the issues to be addressed in the future relationship will provide a significant challenge to even the most seasoned negotiators. The combative rhetoric used by the UK, while proving popular with portions of the domestic audience, does not help to build trust between the two sides. Prime Minister Johnson’s government is now made up of true Brexit believers, many of them believing that it was the threat of a no-deal that secured a compromise over the withdrawal agreement, and are prepared to use this tactic again. Speaking with his characteristic frankness, Irish Commissioner Phil Hogan compared negotiating tensions between the two sides as a pre-match ‘argy bargy’ in the tunnel before a match. Commissioner Hogan was referring to comments made by David Frost last month, that suggested the Britain would reject the ‘level playing field’ conditions set out by the EU.

There is a strong impetus for a trade deal on both sides, as trading on WTO terms will be deeply damaging to both economies through the imposition of tariffs. Additional co-operation on regulation, security and services means a trade deal would be highly beneficial. The stalls have been firmly laid out at this point, with negotiation positions published by both sides last week. The UK aims to secure the maximum market access possible while maintaining its stated Brexit goal of national sovereignty. However, the Canada style trade agreement they seek would result in friction on the issue of the Irish border, something which remains unacceptable to Ireland and the EU. In recent weeks, the UK have made it clear that they are willing to accept barriers as the price for national sovereignty  and the ability to set independent policies. For the EU, the goal remains market access that is contingent on regulatory commitment and a legally binding dispute settlement structure.

Officials close to the talks say that fishing rights, governance systems to resolve arising disputes and the level playing field will be sticking points in the negotiations. Speaking at the conclusion of the round of talks on Thursday, Michel Barnier stated that there were “very serious” divergences between the two sides. The UK has already rejected the EU’s suggestion that they maintain the bloc’s current state-aid regime. The British negotiating team have also pushed back on the EU’s demand for level playing field regulatory standards, which would be backed by penalties if breached. The EU remain adamant that negotiations will be stalled if Boris Johnson reneges on commitments made on checks on the Irish border.

Brussels and London are already looking to an EU – UK summit in June as a critical juncture in the timeline of the negotiations. The UK have said that if insufficient progress has been made in the negotiations by June, it will begin to prepare for a no-deal scenario. The EU remains the more conciliatory of the two sides, with Michel Barnier stating at the conclusion of the first round of talks that “an agreement is possible, even if difficult”.