Brexit: Von der Leyen meeting will be no walk in the park for Johnson

Fisheries and level playing field two sticking points on Britain’s path to negotiating ‘tunnel’

British prime minister Boris Johnson and European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, who will meet on a video call on Saturday. File photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

British prime minister Boris Johnson and European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, who will meet on a video call on Saturday. File photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

 

Saturday’s meeting between Boris Johnson and Ursula von der Leyen will be an important moment in the negotiations on Britain’s future relationship with the EU, and both sides agree that that is in itself a good sign. But the meeting is unlikely to deliver a breakthrough similar to Johnson’s walk in the park with Leo Varadkar last year or to lead immediately to the negotiating “tunnel” Britain is hoping to enter.

The mood during this week’s round of talks in Brussels between David Frost and Michel Barnier was positive, but both men said on Friday that there was little movement on the two big sticking points of fisheries and the level playing field guaranteeing fair competition.

Our new economic partnership must be underpinned by clear rules. These rules must be operational and credible

“On the level playing field, including subsidy policy, we continue to seek an agreement that ensures our ability to set our own laws in the UK without constraints that go beyond those appropriate to a free trade agreement,” said Frost. “There has been some limited progress here but the EU need to move further before an understanding can be reached. On fisheries, the gap between us is unfortunately very large and, without further realism and flexibility from the EU, risks being impossible to bridge.”

Although the issue of fisheries is highly charged politically in Britain and some member states including France, the disagreement is over how much access European fishermen should have to British waters rather than the principle of allowing European boats in at all. On the issue of state aid, or subsidy policy, the disagreement is more ideological, and Barnier made clear that the EU needs “solid, long-term guarantees” of open and fair competition.

“Our new economic partnership must be underpinned by clear rules. These rules must be operational and credible. That requires effective enforcement mechanisms, in particular on state aid, and a commitment towards non-regression from social, fiscal, environmental and climate standards. This is possible while fully respecting the regulatory autonomy and sovereignty of both parties,” he said.

When Johnson spoke last June to Von der Leyen, European Council president Charles Michel and European Parliament president David Sassoli, they agreed to add momentum to the talks. After that, Barnier lowered the EU’s demands on fisheries and state aid but, in the months since then, Britain has not made a comparable, reciprocal move.

A successful meeting on Saturday would lead to a fresh round of negotiations that could then open up the “tunnel” of intense negotiations within a media blackout and minimal communication with national capitals. In an interview with the BBC on Friday, Johnson said it was “up to our friends and partners to be commonsensical”.

But on Saturday, it is up to him to make his move.