Michel Barnier will report on Wednesday that almost two weeks of intensive Brexit talks have led to progress in drawing up a trade agreement between the EU and the UK, but no breakthroughs on the key sticking points.
The EU negotiator will brief the national ambassadors and European parliamentarians tomorrow after 13 days of meetings in which Mr Barnier and his UK counterpart David Frost have tried to pull the threads of a future relationship negotiation that will cover everything from trade to the fight against terrorism.
When asked about the status of the talks on Tuesday, a spokesman for the European Commission said there was “still a lot to be done”. “Negotiations on the various issues are ongoing,” he said.
The EU and UK negotiating teams have held meetings in Brussels in the past few days, having left London in the middle of last week. Face-to-face meetings are taking place in the Belgian capital, although the city is subject to a strict Covid-19 lockdown. The commission spokesman said socially distant precautions were being followed.
EU officials confirmed that serious disagreements persist between the two sides. A person briefed on the talks said the two negotiating teams could take a break on Wednesday to reflect on progress.
In London, talks are expected to resume in the British capital over the weekend. “We are not expecting a ‘white smoke moment’ on Wednesday,” said a British official.
Lord Frost will keep UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson informed of the talks and is expected to say that there is still “a long way to go” to resolve outstanding issues.
Crucially, the EU and the UK have so far not been able to fill any loopholes on EU fishing rights in UK waters and rules restricting state aid to businesses.
“We haven’t found a solution for the fisheries yet,” said the Commission spokesman. An EU diplomat who was aware of the talks said the two sides were still “far apart”.
France demands continuous access to the six to twelve mile long coastal zone around Great Britain. © Charly Triballeau / AFP
The discussions on fish dealt with a number of subjects: the distribution of fishing rights for more than 70 species of fish that are common between EU and UK waters; the principle of access to British waters; and what to do about historical rights that nations like France, Belgium and the Netherlands must fish near the British coast.
The source said France continues to demand access to the six to twelve mile long coastal zone around Britain – a politically difficult concession for London unless it is offset by large gains in fish stocks that other EU member states refuse to allow.
France isn’t the only affected country – regional politicians in Belgium have threatened to turn to a 17th-century treaty signed by Charles II to protect their rights in the six- to twelve-mile zone.
“Britain cannot admit that [access] except possibly for a payment in [the form of additional] A quota that would be far too high for the rest of the EU to accept, ”added the diplomat, explaining the tie in which the talks were currently trapped.
A second EU diplomat suggested that the two sides’ chances of reaching a trade deal remained “50:50” as talks on the crucial area of business level play remained “slow” and neither side made decisive concessions.
Brussels also confirmed on Tuesday that the UK had failed to respond to a letter from the Commission last month indicating that the government’s single market law would violate last year’s Brexit deal in relation to Northern Ireland.
The Commission spokesman said Brussels was considering “the next steps”, including moving to the next stage of the process – issuing a resignation order to the UK, a move known in EU jargon as a “reasoned opinion”.
If the matter remains unsolved after that, the Commission could take Great Britain to the European Court of Justice. British officials said Brussels had been warned in advance that Britain would not respond to the letter.
Mr Johnson has indicated that he hopes to remove the controversial clauses of the bill through the successful conclusion of negotiations with the EU on a trade deal and operation of the Northern Irish border.
The EU and Great Britain are currently in talks about the implementation of last year’s agreement, in particular about the solution to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland. An EU official said it was possible that the EU-UK joint committee responsible for this work could meet next week.
One person familiar with these talks said negotiations on the implementation of the most sensitive elements of the Northern Ireland Protocol remained “very, very slow”, with the EU continuing an approach that Britain considered overly legalistic.