Brexit: unanswered questions

The gaps between EU and UK positions on trade raise real concerns about the future of the talks

Unless the UK relents on many of its “ red lines”, the most the EU, led by council president Donald Tusk (above), will offer is a trade deal similar to the one it negotiated with Canada, albeit probably a bit more far-reaching. Photograph: Reuters

Unless the UK relents on many of its “ red lines”, the most the EU, led by council president Donald Tusk (above), will offer is a trade deal similar to the one it negotiated with Canada, albeit probably a bit more far-reaching. Photograph: Reuters

 

The worrying gap between what the UK is seeking and what the remaining 27 EU members are likely to agree to has been underlined again by draft negotiating guidelines issued for the next phase of the Brexit talks. Brussels is not for turning, nor was it ever likely to be. The guidelines, from the European Commission, will be amended following political input from around the EU. But the divergence between the two sides about the future trading relationship raises real concerns about the future of the talks.

There are few signs of where compromise might be possible. The EU says the UK can either opt in to its trading bloc – and remain in the single market and customs union on the EU’s terms – or negotiate a new trade deal after it leaves the EU. The UK’s desire for a “bespoke” middle route is rebuffed.

The document underlines that the UK must abide by commitments already made, which include the avoidance of a return of a hard Border. How this will be achieved is far from clear

Unless the UK relents on many of its “red lines”, the most the EU will offer is a trade deal similar to the one it negotiated with Canada, albeit probably a bit more far-reaching. This will be a worse situation than exists at present from both the EU and UK points of view. As the guidelines say, if the UK persists in leaving the trading bloc, then “negative economic consequences” are inevitable.

As the remaining EU member most exposed to Brexit, Ireland is at particular risk here. It is welcome that the guidelines refer to the EU desire for an ambitious free trade deal with the UK and the alignment of regulations in some areas. If agreement on tariff-free trade can be struck, it will remove some risk for Ireland. But threats would remain from new customs procedures, delays and costs and tariff-free trade would not, on its own, remove the need for border controls between the UK and the EU. Meanwhile the risk of a hard Brexit, with no trade deal, remains.

The document underlines that the UK must abide by commitments already made, which include the avoidance of a return of a hard Border. How this will be achieved is far from clear. With Brexit now only a year away, far too many questions remain unanswered.

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