Brexit talks on future relationship stumbling toward the brink

Few signs of progress being made in UK-EU talks ahead of a key deadline next month

Downing Street warned that the EU is at risk of failing to honour commitments it made in the withdrawal agreement.

Downing Street warned that the EU is at risk of failing to honour commitments it made in the withdrawal agreement.

 

Britain and the European Union’s talks about their future relationship are stumbling toward the brink, with few signs of progress being made ahead of a key deadline next month.

As the latest round of negotiations end Friday, the UK is refusing to compromise in key areas – most notably on the conditions the EU wants the country to accept in return for a trade deal, but also on fisheries and on the role of the bloc’s courts.

Meanwhile, the two sides are trading blows over promises they have both already signed up to. On Thursday, the European Commission threatened the UK with a lawsuit for breaking the bloc’s rules on freedom of movement.

Downing Street warned that the EU is at risk of failing to honour commitments it made in the Brexit withdrawal agreement to protect the rights of UK citizens living in the bloc.

Just one more round of talks remains before politicians meet in June to decide if it’s worth carrying on. British prime minister Boris Johnson has threatened to walk away if insufficient progress has been made by then.

If he follows through on that threat, Britain could end its post-Brexit transition period on December 31st without a free-trade deal, putting more pressure on an economy already reeling from the coronavirus pandemic.

David Frost, Johnson’s chief Brexit negotiator, briefed the cabinet on the status of talks at a meeting Thursday and told ministers the bloc was asking for too much.

“David reiterated that we weren’t and never had asked for anything special bespoke or unique from the EU,” Johnson’s spokesman, James Slack, told reporters.

“We are looking for a free-trade agreement based on precedent and similar to those the EU has already got with other countries like Canada.”

Frost told ministers the EU “has asked far more from the UK than they have from other sovereign countries with whom they have reached free-trade agreements,” Slack said.

The bloc’s excessive demands include access to fishing waters and a commitment for Britain to abide by EU rules on areas such as workers’ rights, he said.

After the last round of negotiations, EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier accused the UK of failing to engage “substantially” in several key areas while refusing to extend the deadline to reach a deal.

The EU argues that geographic proximity dictates it has to seek guarantees that the UK won’t try to undercut the bloc’s economy.

In a further escalation of tensions, cabinet office minister Michael Gove pressed the EU to honour the pledge it made in the withdrawal agreement to protect the rights of UK citizens living in the bloc.

In a letter to Maros Sefcovic, co-chair the EU-UK Joint Committee, Gove complained that member states haven’t contacted British citizens or told them what they need to do to obtain residency rights or health coverage.

“When viewed cumulatively these themes amount to a serious risk that the EU will not fulfil its obligations under the withdrawal agreement,” Gove wrote.

Meanwhile, the European Commission threatened the UK with a lawsuit over what it called breaches of rules on the free movement of people.

Officials say the UK failed to notify the EU about new laws banning people it deported from applying for re-entry as well as rules making it harder for EU citizens to claim welfare.

Migration was a key battleground in the 2016 Brexit referendum, with the Leave campaign claiming that quitting the EU would enable the UK to take back control of its borders.

The Commission gave the UK four months to rectify its shortcomings. If the UK fails to take the necessary measures, the bloc will move to the next stage of the legal process, which could eventually see fines being levied.

“The rights of EU citizens resident in the UK after the end of the transition period, as set out in the withdrawal agreement, are built on the rights that they currently enjoy in the UK under EU rules,” the commission said.

The move underscores how Britain remains tied to the bloc’s rules during the transition period despite formally leaving the EU four months ago. – Bloomberg