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RTE | 3 June 2020
Post-Brexit trade talks resume but little sign of breakthrough
Trade negotiators from the UK and the EU embarked on a fourth round of post-Brexit negotiations yesterday, but no-one in London or Brussels expects a breakthrough this week.
Instead, once the latest cross-Channel video conferences are over, EU chief Ursula von der Leyen and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson will meet to decide how to proceed.
A "high-level" June meeting to take stock of the talks was already foreseen in the political declaration signed by both parties alongside the divorce accord last year.
But it may take on more urgency now, as talks between EU negotiator Michel Barnier and his UK counterpart David Frost have revealed stark differences in approach.
The UK is not expected to ask for any extension to the post-Brexit transition and so is on track to leave the single market and EU customs union on 31 December.
If no trade deal is in place by then, experts predict severe disruption to businesses already reeling from a coronavirus pandemic that no-one expected when the UK voted to leave the union in June 2016.
Mr Barnier, the Brussels veteran and former French minister tasked by the remaining 27 EU members with negotiating an orderly Brexit, has said the week would have to show the UK’s intentions.
"A crucial week ahead of us to make tangible progress across all areas, in line with the Political Declaration," Mr Barnier tweeted yesterday.
"A high-level meeting later this month will take stock of progress. I will brief the press on Friday."
A European official, talking condition of anonymity, warned: "It’s not at all a decisive week, but a predictable one, which will just confirm we’re at a dead end."
Some have suggested that there may be some movement on fishing rights, with the EU giving ground on access to EU waters in exchange for Britain signing up to European level-playing field rules.
But Number 10 briefed reporters that this was "wishful thinking by the EU".
Mr Barnier has been given a mandate to seek an ambitious overarching agreement to oversee a so-called "level playing field" in manufacturing, labour and environmental standards.
This would give British firms access to most - but not all - of the benefits of the single market, without exposing their European rivals to attempts to undercut standards.
Mr Frost and Mr Johnson, however, say they only want a simple trade deal that would preserve UK sovereignty while allowing the vast majority of trade to remain tariff-free.
And, rather than placing this under the aegis of a unique EU-UK pact, they want to pursue a series of deals in separate sectors such as trade, fisheries, aviation and energy.
"We expect the round to be constructive and to keep the process on track ahead of the high-level meeting later this month," a UK spokesman said.
"However... it’s clear that the EU needs to evolve its position to reach an agreement," he warned.
Mr Barnier has complained that Mr Frost’s more aggressive "tone" in pushing the British case in an exchange of letters last month could disrupt progress.
Brussels officials are annoyed that Britain has, in their eyes, backtracked on a written agreement to accept level-playing-field guarantees as part of a future trade deal.
But London insists the draft UK proposals meet these commitments, and complains the EU is refusing to offer the same kind of trade deal it signed with Canada or Singapore.
"A balanced solution is needed which reflects the political realities on both sides, and we will continue to make sure our position is understood," the spokesman said.
"We won’t agree to any EU demands for us to give up our rights as an independent state."
With the sides camped out in conflicting visions of the way ahead, few experts expect this week’s talks to bear fruit.
But, with so much at stake, nobody expects the talks to break down irretrievably either.
"Barnier and Frost are saying the same thing, a no deal is perfectly plausible. At the same time, both sides would prefer to have a deal," said Anand Menon, director of the think-tank UK in a Changing Europe.
He expected little from this week’s talks, nor from Mr Johnson and Ms von der Leyen’s meeting by the end of the month.
"They will probably say that both sides are willing to continue talking," he told AFP.
"If we get a compromise it will come very late in the talks, in the autumn."
Nissan warns Sunderland plant ’unsustainable’ without EU trade deal
Meanwhile, car giant Nissan has warned it will not be able to sustain operations at its Sunderland manufacturing plant in northeast England if Brexit negotiations fail to establish a trade deal.
The 7,000 workers of the UK’s largest car manufacturing plant rejoiced last week after surviving a global cost-cutting restructuring that saw the closure of the Japanese firm’s Barcelona facility.
A Nissan spokesman said at the time that "Sunderland (remained) an important part of our plans for the European business."
But in an interview with the BBC, Nissan’s global chief operating officer Ashwani Gupta warned the company would not be able to stand by its commitment to the Sunderland plant if the UK left the European Union without a trade deal that enabled tariff-free EU access.
Mr Gupta said: "You know we are the number one carmaker in the UK and we want to continue. We are committed.
"Having said that, if we are not getting the current tariffs, it’s not our intention but the business will not be sustainable.
"That’s what everybody has to understand."
Boris Johnson has been adamant he will not seek any extension to the current Brexit transition period which ends on 31 December, despite warnings the coronavirus outbreak means it will be impossible to conclude a new free trade agreement with the EU by that date.