EU accuses Britain of backtracking as Brexit deadline nears

October looming as last chance to agree complex deal, Barnier warns

EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier: “This week, there have been no significant areas of progress.” Photograph: Yves Herman/AFP

Talks between Britain and the European Union on their future trading relationship have stalled and London is backtracking on issues previously agreed, chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier has said.

“My responsibility is to tell the truth,” Mr Barnier said after the week of talks concluded. “The truth is that there was no substantial progress.”

He listed a series of issues on which negotiations were deadlocked, including on fishing, fair competition rules and on legal governance of the new relationship.

“In all these areas, and many others, the UK continues to backtrack on the commitments it has undertaken in the political declaration,” Mr Barnier said, referring to the statement of intent on the future relationship that accompanied the withdrawal deal signed into law last year.


“We cannot and will not accept this backtracking,” he added. “There has been no significant progress on these points as I’ve said, not since the start of the negotiations.”

Face to face

Both sides said that while little progress had been made, the discussions had been positive, and suggested they could move from video-conferencing to face-to-face negotiations if possible in the coming weeks.

This is the last month in which the British government can ask for an extension of the December 31st cliff-edge, the end of the current transitional period in which UK-EU trade remains much as before. British prime minister Boris Johnson has insisted his government will not ask for more time.

Mr Barnier warned that without an extension, October would be the last chance to agree the highly complex deal, which must cover matters ranging from cross-border supplies of electricity to recognition of professional qualifications and be ratified by the EU’s 27 member states.

He conceded it was not possible to reach a deal on fisheries by July 1st, as both sides had previously hoped, saying Britain had “not shown any true will” to explore options other than its position that it could grant access to its waters based on yearly talks.

Sea access

“They continue to make access to waters conditional on an annual negotiation which is not possible for us, not even technically possible,” Mr Barnier said.

One area where some progress was made was on human rights guarantees that would allow Britain and the EU to continue co-operating in criminal and judicial matters, he noted, but the two sides were still far from agreement.

EU officials have warned that even if a deal is reached, Britain is aiming for a relationship with the bloc that will involve barriers to trade, and have warned companies to prepare accordingly.

If no agreement can be found, after December 31st Britain and the EU will begin trading on default World Trade Organisation terms, meaning tariffs must be levied on goods.

The cost of compliance with this and additional expense to consumers is forecast to cause a drop in trade, causing an economic blow companies have warned would be disastrous given the downturn already caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Naomi O’Leary

Naomi O’Leary

Naomi O’Leary is Europe Correspondent of The Irish Times