Last-ditch Brexit trade talks resume amid growing EU scepticism

Daniel Boffey in Brussels
·7-min read
<span>Photograph: Vickie Flores/EPA</span>
Photograph: Vickie Flores/EPA

Michel Barnier has told MEPs he is prepared for a further four days of make-or-break Brexit negotiations, with growing scepticism among EU member states about the utility of further talks.

Having spent a week in isolation after a member of the bloc’s team tested positive for coronavirus, Barnier and his staff resumed face-to-face negotiations in London on Saturday morning.

Barnier told MEPs in a private meeting on Friday that he would work through the weekend and then “maybe one or two more days” in a last-ditch attempt to bridge the large gaps between the sides.

EU sources said there was a growing feeling that the lack of progress and the need to prepare businesses for the repercussions of a no-deal British departure from the EU made it unwise for negotiations to continue beyond then.

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With just 34 days before the end of the transition period, Barnier has been advised by officials in the European parliament that arranging for sufficient scrutiny and a consent vote by MEPs before the end of the year would be difficult without a deal by Wednesday.

Priti Patel, the UK home secretary, said on Saturday: “As a government, we’re very clear in our commitment to make sure that those talks continue so that we can get to a conclusive end.

“But at the same time we are preparing in the way in which our country would expect us to prepare for the end of transition – and from the Home Office and every aspect of government we are continuing while those negotiations carry on.”

An extraordinary sitting of the EU chamber has been pencilled in for 28 December, as first revealed by the Guardian. A final result would be announced at 6.30pm, central European time.

There is some doubt over whether the EU would be willing to take the blame for a no-deal exit by walking away if this week fails to provide a breakthrough.

There is the “worst-case” option of the deal being provisionally applied and a vote being held by the European parliament after the end of the year, if further time appears useful, but that is not currently being considered.

The European parliament has insisted, with Barnier’s backing, that it will have the “last word” on the trade and security treaty.

The negotiations remain stuck on the level of access that will be granted to European fishing fleets in UK waters, and the means by which either side will be able to hit back if the other seeks to gain a competitive advantage by diverging on environmental, labour or social standards.

Barnier expressed his dismay to EU ambassadors on Friday that the UK was still claiming that the EU-Canada trade deal offered precedent for its negotiating demands.

He described progress on “level playing field” provisions as “ephemeral”, with one week’s progress constantly at risk of being undone by the next.

In the political declaration on the future relationship, both sides committed to “uphold the common high standards” in the UK and the EU “at the end of the transition period in the areas of state aid, competition, social and employment standards, environment, the climate crisis and relevant tax matters”.

(January 31, 1961)  Brefusal

The French president, Charles de Gaulle, vetoes Britain’s entry to EEC, accusing the UK of a “deep-seated hostility” towards the European project.

(January 31, 1973)  Brentry

With Sir Edward Heath having signed the accession treaty the previous year, the UK enters the EEC in an official ceremony complete with a torch-lit rally, dickie-bowed officials and a procession of political leaders, including former prime ministers Harold Macmillan and Alec Douglas-Home.

(January 31, 1975)  Referendum

The UK decides to stay in the common market after 67% voted "yes". Margaret Thatcher, later to be leader of the Conservative party, campaigned to remain.

(January 31, 1984)  'Give us our money back'

Margaret Thatcher negotiated what became known as the UK rebate with other EU members after the "iron lady" marched into the former French royal palace at Fontainebleau to demand “our own money back” claiming for every £2 contributed we get only £1 back” despite being one of the “three poorer” members of the community.

It was a move that sowed the seeds of Tory Euroscepticism that was to later cause the Brexit schism in the party. 

(January 31, 1988)  The Bruges speech

Thatcher served notice on the EU community in a defining moment in EU politics in which she questioned the expansionist plans of Jacques Delors, who had remarked that 80% of all decisions on economic and social policy would be made by the European Community within 10 years with a European government in “embryo”. That was a bridge too far for Thatcher.

(January 31, 1989)  The cold war ends

Collapse of Berlin wall and fall of communism in eastern Europe, which would later lead to expansion of EU.

(January 31, 1990) 'No, no, no'

Divisions between the UK and the EU deepened with Thatcher telling the Commons in an infamous speech it was ‘no, no, no’ to what she saw as Delors’ continued power grab. Rupert Murdoch’s Sun newspaper ratchets up its opposition to Europe with a two-fingered “Up yours Delors” front page.

(January 31, 1992)  Black Wednesday

A collapse in the pound forced prime minister John Major and the then chancellor Norman Lamont to pull the UK out of the Exchange Rate Mechanism.

(January 31, 1993)  The single market

On 1 January, customs checks and duties were removed across the bloc. Thatcher hailed the vision of “a single market without barriers – visible or invisible – giving you direct and unhindered access to the purchasing power of over 300 million of the world’s wealthiest and most prosperous people".

(January 31, 1993) Maastricht treaty

Tory rebels vote against the treaty that paved the way for the creation of the European Union. John Major won the vote the following day in a pyrrhic victory. 

(January 31, 1997)  Repairing the relationship

Tony Blair patches up the relationship. Signs up to social charter and workers' rights.

(January 31, 1999)  Ukip

Nigel Farage elected an MEP and immediately goes on the offensive in Brussels. “Our interests are best served by not being a member of this club,” he said in his maiden speech. “The level playing field is about as level as the decks of the Titanic after it hit an iceberg.”

(January 31, 2003) The euro

Chancellor Gordon Brown decides the UK will not join the euro.

(January 31, 2004) 

EU enlarges to to include eight countries of the former eastern bloc including Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic.

(January 31, 2007) 

EU expands again, allowing Romania and Bulgaria into the club.

(January 31, 2015) Migrant crisis

Anti-immigration hysteria seems to take hold with references to “cockroches” by Katie Hopkins in the Sun and tabloid headlines such as “How many more can we take?” and “Calais crisis: send in the dogs”.

(February 1, 2016) 

David Cameron returns from Brussels with an EU reform package - but it isn't enough to appease the Eurosceptic wing of his own party

(June 23, 2016)  Brexit referendum

The UK votes to leave the European Union, triggering David Cameron's resignation and paving the way for Theresa May to become prime minister

(January 31, 2020)  Britain leaves the EU

After years of parliamentary impasse during Theresa May's attempt to get a deal agreed, the UK leaves the EU.

The UK has agreed to non-regression on standards but it does not want EU law to be the baseline. That would introduce EU concepts and the European court of justice into the treaty. The two sides are therefore locked in talks about how to define their current common high standards.

The EU is also seeking a “ratchet clause” to ensure that as either side develops its standards over time, the other side faces consequences should it choose not to follow with equivalent regulations.

The negotiators are working on a model where if one side raises standards, the other must consider adopting them. The EU then wants an independent panel to judge if one side’s refusal to move in tandem is creating a competitive advantage. They would then set a remedy. But the UK is resisting anything that amounts to Brussels having the right of prior approval on domestic legislation.

The scale of the difference between the two sides on fisheries was laid bare after Barnier told MEPs on Friday that the UK was seeking to repatriate 80% of the EU’s current catch in British seas, described as an “outsized” volume.

The EU has so far only offered to return between 15% to 18%, an offer described by British negotiators as “derisory”.