Tuesday

19th Mar 2019

'Dealbreaker' issues multiply in Brexit talks

  • Raab (l) and Barnier at their meeting last week. Raab wants more (Photo: European Commission)

The UK's demand for guarantees on its future relationship with the EU as part of the Brexit deal further complicates negotiations ahead of a meeting of chief negotiators in Brussels on Friday (31 August).

The UK is seeking assurances that EU countries will agree to engrave the future relationship in an international agreement later down the line, a source familiar with the discussions told EUobserver.

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But the EU-27 governments say they cannot a priori commit to an international agreement which needs the approval of their respective parliaments.

The UK and the EU have been negotiating the withdrawal agreement for over a year.

This will be the legal divorce document focusing on the financial settlement, the rights of EU citizens, and the Irish border issue.

There will be a declaration attached to the deal, which will not be a legally binding text, on the framework of the future relationship between the EU and the UK.

According to EU officials, work on the wording of that declaration has not yet started as negotiations have been bogged down on other issues, while the UK wants to see a detailed draft already.

The UK also wants guarantees in the text that EU governments will put the framework into an international agreement.

While the withdrawal agreement only needs the approval of the governments of the EU-27, the UK and the European Parliament, any future trade deal or other international agreement will require the consent of national parliaments.

The UK's White Paper, London's policy for future relations with the EU, published in July, states that "the Withdrawal Agreement should include an explicit commitment by both parties to finalise these legal agreements as soon as possible in accordance with the parameters set out in the Future Framework".

Few governments in the EU could guarantee the approval of national parliaments in advance.

November summit

However, that is only one obstacle to the deal on the UK's fast-approaching exit from the union next March.

UK Brexit minister Dominic Raab and EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier will meet on Friday (31 August) for another round of discussions after they agreed to "continuous" talks last week.

Raab, according to officials, is a more hands-on negotiator than his predecessor, David Davis, and wants to meet with Barnier more often to discuss details.

Raab's eagerness has been met with frustration on the EU side at what seems to be a lack of understanding that Barnier is ready to negotiate on the political level, but not on the intricate technicalities of the deal.

"Perhaps he [Raab] thinks of himself as a dealmaker," an EU official quipped.

The official estimated that there has been only 5-6 percent more agreed text since March, when Barnier and Davis announced that they had agreed to 80 percent of the withdrawal agreement.

The chance of a no-deal has been increasing, according to the source, who put the odds of a no divorce deal at above 50 percent.

Negotiators were eager to reach an agreement by October to have ample time for the UK and European parliaments to approve the deal, but an extraordinary EU summit in November on Brexit is now seen in Brussels as a given.

While British prime minister Theresa May will brief EU leaders at an informal summit in Salzburg on 20 September, the EU-27 are not expected to enter into negotiations with May and the meeting is likely to be dominated by migration issues.

EU leaders are also keen to see how the Conservative Party's conference at the end of September will unfold.

May's party is bitterly split between those who want a "clean break" from the EU and those who would prefer staying close to the bloc on several issues.

Geographical battle

Another key disagreement has emerged on the so-called protection of geographical indications, which is a list of recognised products of specific regional or traditional qualities, aimed at protecting the authenticity and (the price) of these products, such as feta cheese or cognac.

The EU cannot take UK products out of its official register and wants to make sure in the withdrawal deal that the UK continues to provide the same strong protection for EU products without extra expenses.

But for now, the UK is aiming for a weaker system, hoping to secure better trade deals with the US and others once it is no longer a member of the EU.

This could potentially mean unfair competition for the EU's feta cheese and cognac makers, among others.

But this is only one of the several "dealbreaker" issues, as an EU official put it.

The main obstacle to the withdrawal deal is still the conundrum of the Irish border, where both sides pledged to avoid a hard border, but implementing that promise seems to be impossible among the current negotiating positions.

The EU proposed to practically keep Northern Ireland in the EU's customs union to avoid border checks on the island of Ireland, an idea that the UK has rejected as interfering with the UK's constitutional set up.

This so-called backstop option needs to be "digestible" for the UK, according to an EU official, and a possible way is to keep the entire UK in the customs union for now, while promising the UK a continued customs alliance on goods in future, under which scenario the EU would have to bend its own rules on having a third party have some kind of access to the benefits of the single market.

Barnier said on Wednesday that the bloc was prepared to offer Britain an unprecedentedly close relationship after it quit the bloc, but would not allow anything that weakened the single market.

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