EU top negotiator Michel Barnier calls the progress of the talks between the United Kingdom (UK) and Brussels on a trade agreement “disappointing”. According to the French, little progress has been made, making him “not optimistic about an agreement with the UK”. Barnier made the statements Friday at a news conference after another week of negotiations between the two sides.
The main problem remains the so-called level playing field between the EU and the UK as a condition for a trade agreement. This means that the British cannot simply lower their standards when it comes to working conditions, environmental standards and tax rules. Brussels fears that the UK will lower standards after next year, in order to improve its competitiveness vis-à-vis the EU.
British top negotiator David Frost lashed out at Brussels earlier in the day because of the controversy on the subject.
“The so-called level playing field would chain our country to European rules and standards, in a way that is unprecedented in this type of free trade agreement,” said Frost. “When Brussels realizes that we do not agree with this, we can only make progress.”
The two parties are also still far apart regarding fishing, which is one of the other pain points. The British want fisheries to be negotiated in a separate agreement and that future agreements will become more similar to those between the EU and Norway.
“The UK cannot just grab the best things about the internal market without obligations that even EU Member States have to meet,” Barnier said on Friday.
With these statements and the time pressure, it seems increasingly plausible that the two camps will not be able to conclude a trade agreement before the end of the year. The two sides officially have until the end of December to come to a good trade agreement, a time schedule that is already very tight compared to other major trade agreements. This deadline can be extended, but the government led by Boris Johnson has said several times that it does not want to do so.
The question is whether the negotiations will continue until December: the Johnson administration said it wanted to see progress earlier this year in June. If not, the British can walk away from the negotiating table and take the rest of the year to prepare for a no-deal Brexit.
With only one round of negotiations on the agenda before that deadline, it seems unlikely that the two sides will make much progress until then. The next round of negotiations is scheduled for the first week of June.