Monday, 30 Nov 2020

Time running short, UK and EU get back down to business

LONDON/BRUSSELS (Reuters) – With time fast running out, Britain and the European Union start intensified negotiations on Thursday in a new, final push to try to secure a deal to protect billions of dollars of post-Brexit trade between the neighbours.

After Prime Minister Boris Johnson walked away from the negotiations late last week, the two sides reached agreement on Wednesday to resume talks just 10 weeks before a status quo transition arrangement expires and Britain goes it alone.

With trust damaged and tempers frayed, the two sides will sit down every day including the weekend until Oct. 25, and then set the intensified agenda for the coming weeks in both Brussels and London.

The EU is ready to negotiate by mid-November, but then needs time to be able to ratify any deal before the year-end deadline.

“Time is now very short and we’ve been repeatedly clear that any agreement needs to be in place before the end of the transition period and if an agreement can’t be reached, we will leave on Australian-style terms,” a spokesman for Johnson told reporters, using the government’s term for no deal.

“Both sides have agreed to a genuine intensification of the negotiations with talks taking place daily, including at weekends, and both sides do recognise that time is extremely short.”

The talks have all but stalled since summer, with neither side compromising on the thorniest issues of fair competition guarantees, especially state aid rules, and fisheries, a sector laden with symbolism for Brexit supporters in Britain.

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There has been some movement around the edges, but in a briefing with diplomats in Brussels late on Wednesday, EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier said he “wasn’t worried about anything else but fish”, one person who participated in the closed-door meeting said.

“Fish is now the thing to tackle. The other elements seem doable, more or less,” the diplomat said.

After Johnson walked away from talks last week, EU officials have become increasingly frustrated with British tactics which in their mind simply use up valuable time in unnecessary theatrics.

But the UK side have argued that they must stick up for their position, and honour Johnson’s pledge to “take back control”. Some in his team saw a small victory in the EU talking up British sovereignty to get the talks back on track.

With time running out, businesses are being told to get ready for the end of the transition period, with or without a trade deal, with British ministers launching an advertising campaign to encourage companies to prepare now.

A no-deal finale to Britain’s five-year Brexit drama would disrupt the operations of manufacturers, retailers, farmers and nearly every other sector just as the economic hit from the coronavirus pandemic worsens.

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