18 May 2020
With public and media attention almost totally focused on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the ongoing trade talks between the UK and the European Union are getting little to no attention.
However, they are approaching a crucial phase — and things are not going well.
Having formally left the EU at the end of January 2020, the UK is currently in an 11-month transition phase during which it has the benefits of being a member but must continue to comply with all Union legislation while no longer having a say in its formulation.
This phase is supposed to allow time for the two sides to agree on their future trading and security relationship and there is the possibility of a two-year extension, provided that it is agreed before the end of June.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said that this will not happen and has committed to that end written into law.
The Opposition, Welsh and Scottish administrations, and numerous EU politicians have argued that the coronavirus crisis has meant that the talks have not progressed as hoped and that the extension should be agreed.
Having to hold meetings via video link has not helped matters with negotiators on both sides agreeing that they miss the opportunity normally available to them to take the talks into smaller, private, side negotiations.
Whatever the reason, progress has been painfully slow with the two sides blaming each other for failing to be flexible and for refusing to move from their original “red lines”.
After the latest round of talks, the UK Government failed to issue an official statement but comments to the press by its lead negotiator, David Frost, suggest that the EU's insistence on a “level playing field” (requiring the UK to stick to EU legislation in areas such as employment) is a major sticking point as is its demand for “unfair access” to UK fishing waters.
The EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, said: “We were, at last, able to initiate the beginnings of a dialogue on fisheries, even if our positions remain very far apart. That said, with the exception of some modest overtures, we failed to make any progress on any of the other more difficult topics.”
He pointed out that the level playing field suggestions are the economic and commercial “fair play” rules that were agreed with Mr Johnson in last year’s Political Declaration.
Should no further progress be made before the June deadline then the two sides seem to be heading for a “no deal” situation which will leave them dependent on basic World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules for their future trade relationship.