Michel Barnier is set to report on Wednesday that close to two weeks of intensified Brexit talks have yielded progress in crafting an EU-UK trade treaty but no breakthroughs on the main sticking points.
The EU’s chief negotiator will brief national ambassadors and European parliamentarians tomorrow after 13 days of meetings in which Mr Barnier and his British counterpart David Frost have sought to pull together the threads of a future-relationship negotiation, encompassing everything from trade to fighting terrorism.
Asked about the state of the talks on Tuesday, a European Commission spokesperson said there was “a lot of work still to be done”. “Negotiations are continuing on all the different topics,” he added.
EU and UK negotiating teams have spent the past few days holding meetings in Brussels after switching from London in the middle of last week. Meetings are taking place in person in the Belgian capital despite the city being under a Covid-19 lockdown — the commission spokesperson said that social-distancing precautions were being observed.
EU officials confirmed that difficult disagreements persisted between the sides. One person briefed on the talks said the negotiating teams could take a break on Wednesday to reflect on progress.
The expectation in London is that the talks will resume at the weekend in the British capital. “We aren’t expecting a ‘white smoke moment’ on Wednesday,” said one UK official.
Lord Frost will update UK prime minister Boris Johnson on the talks and is expected to say there is “still quite a way to go” to resolve outstanding issues.
Crucially, the EU and UK have been unable to bridge gaps on the question of EU fishing rights in British waters and on rules limiting state aid to companies.
“We have not yet found a solution on fisheries,” the commission spokesperson said. An EU diplomat with knowledge of the talks said both sides were still “a long way apart”.
The talks on fish cover several issues: the divvying up of fishing rights for more than 70 types of fish that are spread between EU and UK waters; the principle of access to British waters; and the question of what to do about historic rights that nations such as France, Belgium and the Netherlands have to fish close to the UK coast.
The source said France was demanding continued access to the six-mile to 12-mile coastal zone around the UK — a politically difficult concession for London unless offset by big wins on fish stocks that other EU member states are not prepared to concede.
France is not the only country concerned — regional politicians in Belgium have threatened to turn to a 17th-century treaty signed by Charles II to uphold their rights in the six- to 12-mile zone.
“The UK can’t concede that [access] except possibly for a payment in [the form of additional] quota that would be far too high for the rest of the EU to accept,” the diplomat added, explaining the bind that the talks were trapped in.
A second EU diplomat suggested that the chances of both sides reaching a trade agreement remained “50-50” as talks on the crucial area of level playing field conditions for businesses remained “slow”, with neither side offering decisive concessions.
Brussels on Tuesday also confirmed that Britain had failed to reply to a letter from the commission last month warning that the government’s internal market bill would violate last year’s Brexit treaty as regards Northern Ireland.
The commission spokesman said Brussels was “considering next steps”, including moving to the next stage of the procedure — issuing an order to the UK to back down, a step known in EU jargon as a “reasoned opinion”.
Should the matter remain unresolved even after that, then the commission could haul Britain before the European Court of Justice. British officials said Brussels was warned in advance that the UK would not reply to the letter.
Mr Johnson has indicated he hopes to scrap the controversial clauses in the bill through the successful conclusion of negotiations with the EU on a trade deal and the operation of the Northern Ireland border.
The EU and the UK are still in talks on how to implement last year’s agreement, notably the solution for avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland. One EU official said it was possible that the EU-UK joint committee in charge of that work would meet next week.
A person familiar with those talks said the negotiations on implementing the most sensitive elements of the Northern Ireland protocol remained “very, very slow”, with the EU continuing to take what the UK considered to be an overly legalistic approach.