Tuesday

22nd Jun 2021

EU leaders roll over Brexit talks amid Trump and Russia fears

  • British PM May (m) at the European Council with EU foreign affairs chief Mogherini (l) and French president Macron (r) (Photo: Council of the European Union)

It was supposed to be the EU summit that gives the greenlight to talks on the future relations between the EU and the UK.

That highlight was in fact overshadowed by the assassination attempt in the UK on a Russian former spy and his daughter, and a looming trade war with the US.

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British prime minister Theresa May secured the backing of her EU partners to point the finger at Russia over the chemical attack in Salisbury. She also stayed in Brussels for the second day of the EU summit to talk trade with her colleagues.

It was a rare signal that despite Brexit a growingly hostile global environment would require stronger EU – UK included – cooperation.

"The UK is rediscovering that it needs us," quipped an EU official on the sidelines of the summit.

Level playing field

During the unusually busy summit, EU leaders on Friday (23 March) signed off the guidelines for the post-Brexit, future EU-UK talks in a few seconds.

It clears the way for the next phase in Brexit talks. These won't yet herald in extensive trade talks, only discussions on what the future relationship should look like. It will be summed up in a political declaration attached to the withdrawal treaty.

The guidelines pave the way for EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier to talk to the UK about the future with a view to reaching a broad political agreement by October.

The seven-page document offers the UK a "balanced, ambitious and wide-ranging free trade agreement", balancing out rights and obligations for the UK to "ensure a level playing field".

It means EU countries want to avoid the UK securing rights that outweigh its future obligations, and make sure Britain will not be pick and chose from the EU's single market.

The guidelines point out that the UK "cannot have the same rights and enjoy the same benefits as a member". The EU wants to prevent the UK potentially undercutting the EU on tax, environmental and labour standards.

It offers no tariffs on goods and a close partnership on security and defence. EU leaders also pledge to tweak guidelines on the future if the UK changes its mind on staying in the EU's customs union or single market.

Irish protocol

The document also sets out that negotiations on future relations can only progress if all commitments agreed so far are respected in full, including the UK's assurances that it would avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, the EU's new external border after Brexit.

UK and EU officials will continue to talk about possible solutions on the Irish border next week. The UK has yet to put forward viable solutions to avoid a hard border.

For now, the EU intends to make sure Northern Ireland will stay fully aligned with EU rules, an option which has been criticised by the British government as creating a new trade border in the Irish Sea between Northern Ireland and the British mainland.

"If we can have an agreement on the terms backstop or an alternative to the backstop before June, that's something we would very much welcome," Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar said after the summit.

European Council president Donald Tusk told reporters that EU leaders will assess at their June summit if the Irish issue is resolved.

He added that leaders will also decide then how detailed the early agreement on the future relationship will be.

'No split'

Talks are expected to get ever more complicated on the EU side, as the 27 member states' unity might be challenged by different interests in how much access the UK should be given to sectors within the EU's market.

"We will negotiate a close trade agreement but we will not allow ourselves to be split," German chancellor Angela Merkel pledged at her press conference at the end of the summit.

British prime minister Theresa May welcomed the EU's move.

"I believe there is a new dynamic now in the negotiations. I believe we are approaching this with a spirit of cooperation, a spirit of opportunity for the future as well," she said leaving the summit.

EU leaders also endorsed the agreement reached on the 21-month transition period for after Brexit, during which the UK will not participate in EU institutions, but will still abide by EU rules.

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