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Britain running down the clock in Brexit talks, says Michel Barnier | Politics


Michel Barnier has suggested the UK is running down the clock in its talks over the country’s future relationship with the EU by refusing to even discuss key issues such as access for European fishermen to UK waters.

During a virtual press conference at the end of a week of videoconference talks, the EU’s chief negotiator appeared exasperated by the British team, led by David Frost. The UK’s chief negotiator has said the UK will leave the single market and customs union with or without a deal by the end of the year.

Barnier said the UK had slowed down progress in the talks, adding it was unacceptable to “impose this short, brief timeline, and at the same time not budge/make progress on some topics that are of importance to the EU”.

“The UK cannot refuse to extend the transition, and at the same time slow down discussions on important areas,” he told reporters.

Asked whether the EU could request an extension if the British did not, Barnier said it was not up to one side to be the “demandeur” (seeker), but it had to be a common decision for both parties before 30 June, as stated in the withdrawal agreement.

“It’s too early from our side to express an opinion on this subject,” Barnier said, adding that the European commission would assess the situation in early June. The transition can be extended by up to one or two years by mutual agreement.

The two negotiating teams have been conducting only the second full week of structured talks since the UK left the EU on 31 January. Barnier cited four areas where progress had been “disappointing”, including on a deal on future trade in goods.

Barnier said the EU’s offer of zero-tariff, zero-quota access to its market in exchange for respecting social, environmental standards and state aid rules would give the UK “unprecedented access” to the European market.

But he said the UK had “failed to engage substantially on this topic” and had even “denounced” the basic premise of fair competition.

“It argued that our positions are too far to reach an agreement,” Barnier said. “It also denounced the basic premise that economic interconnectedness and geographic proximity require robust guarantees.”

Throwing back the often-repeated words of British negotiators, Barnier noted the disparity in size between the two sides.

“The UK negotiators keep repeating that we are negotiating as sovereign equals,” Barnier told journalists. “That’s fine, but the reality of the negotiations is to find the best possible relationship between a market of 66 million consumers on the one side of the channel and the market of 450 million consumers on the other side. That is the reality.”

He pointed out that devising such level playing field commitments had been agreed as a necessity “with Boris Johnson in our joint political declaration”, which was ratified at the time as the withdrawal agreement.

A second problem area, Barnier said. was the UK’s insistence that the future relationship should be made up of a series of separate agreements rather than a single deal with a single arrangement for ensuring compliance by both sides.

A third area of “serious difficulty”, he continued, was the UK’s refusal to put into the future treaty that the UK will remain an signatory of the European convention on human rights or recognise the role of the European court of justice in protecting EU citizens’ data when flowing between the bloc and the UK.

“This creates serious, serious limitations for our future security partnership”, he said.

“We made no progress on fisheries,” an evidently frustrated Barnier commented of a fourth area of difficulty. “On this essential topic the UK has not put forward a legal text. We have made no tangible progress. Despite the political declaration stating that we should make our best endeavours to reach an agreement by July.”

The EU will not agree to any future economic partnership does not include the balance, sustainable and long-term solution on fisheries”, Barnier said. “That should be crystal clear to the UK.”

During the transition period, the UK is also obliged to implement the agreement in the Northern Ireland protocol to check goods travelling from the rest of the UK on to the island of Ireland.

Barnier said that Michael Gove, the minister sitting on the joint committee monitoring such issues, had been “bullish confident” when asked about progress. But Barnier said he needed to see “concrete steps” in establishing the necessary infrastructure.

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