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Barnier: 'serious divergences' after first Brexit talks

  • Tete-a-tete or head-to-head? UK chief negotiator David Frost (l) and EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier at the start of the talks on Monday (Photo: European Commission)

"There are many divergences, very serious divergences" among the UK and the EU after the first round of talks on the future relationship, EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier warned Thursday (5 March).

Barnier said the key hurdles are the framework of the agreement, fair competition, the role for the European Court of Justice (ECJ) and fisheries.

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After the first week of talks, Barnier said the EU and UK agreed to maintain high standards on rules and standards - but London does not to formally commit to those standards or agree to a mechanism to uphold them.

As part of a trade deal, the EU wants to prevent the UK from undercutting and dumping EU businesses, and wants London to maintain environmental, labour, and state aid rules.

"Why not stick to them [EU standards and rules], it is a question of trust," Barnier said.

Another key issue is that UK does not want to commit to applying the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), and rules out a role for the European Court of Justice in interpreting EU law, Barnier noted.

The French politician argued that justice and criminal cooperation would include the exchange of sensitive personal data, and in order to protect EU citizens's rights, EU law needs to be interpreted by the ECJ.

He said if there is no agreement on this, the level of cooperation between the UK and EU on criminal and justice would be much lower, based on international rules.

The set-up of the agreement is also uncertain as the UK wants sectorial agreements on different issues, while the EU wants to have an overall agreement covering all areas.

"We do not understand why would we go to a series specific agreement[s], why not put it all in a global framework, […] it is a practical question, to be efficient, to avoid needles parallel structures with separate ratification procedures," Barnier said.

Fishy matters

Negotiators are also at loggerheads over an agreement on access to British fishing waters and EU markets.

Barnier said the UK is asking to negotiate separate reciprocal access on an annual basis like Norway, but that is not possible because of the large number of species that would come under such a deal.

Barnier said he will seek a "balanced" compromise on fisheries by July, but if the EU and UK cannot agree, he will try to get it in the overall agreement.

In the first week of negotiations talks have not taken place on foreign affairs and defence, Barnier said, because the UK has ruled out an specific agreement on those for now.

"These are going to be tough negotiations – this is just the first round. In some areas there seems to be a degree of common understanding of how to take the talks forward," a UK government spokesperson said, adding that in areas such as fishing, governance, criminal justice and the level playing field there are "significant differences".

"The UK team made clear that, on 1 January 2021, we would regain our legal and economic independence – and that the future relationship must reflect that fact," the spokesperson added.

"An agreement is possible, even if difficult," Barnier said, adding that mutual trust and not walking back on previous agreements are key to success.

The two sides have until the end of the year to negotiate a deal on the future relationship, if the UK does not ask for an extension to the transition period by July, which Boris Johnson, the UK prime minister, has pre-emptively ruled out.

Barnier warned not to underestimate the consequences of a no-deal by next January when EU rules and obligations will no longer apply to the UK.

"Next January will not be like January this year. It will be very, very different," he said.

Barnier also said that his British counterpart, David Frost, had assured him that Britain will stick to the measures to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland, agreed in the EU-UK divorce deal.

EU officials have been worried by UK government statements hinting at not implementing border checks.

The EU-UK joint committee overseeing the withdrawal agreement will have its first meeting on 30 March.

Talks on the future relationship will continue on London later in March.

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