Negotiators hunker down in Brussels in search of Brexit breakthrough

Britain and the EU remain far apart on fishing rights and other key sticking points in their future-relationship talks, with two weeks remaining until the mid-November deadline that both sides have identified as the limit by which a deal needs to be struck. 

People involved in the negotiations said that intensive talks in London earlier this week had delivered substantial progress in drafting the text of a deal, but that real breakthroughs on the outstanding issues remained elusive. Talks resumed in Brussels on Friday and will continue through the weekend.

Both sides see mid-November as the absolute deadline, because the text will need to be legally checked and ratified by the EU and UK parliaments before the end of Britain’s post-Brexit transition period on December 31. 

At stake in the negotiations is whether the two sides can broker a deal to safeguard tariff-free trade and so mitigate the inevitable economic upheaval that will come with Britain exiting the EU’s single market and customs union. The negotiations also cover areas such as future law enforcement co-operation, air and road transport links and access to the EU’s energy market. 

People involved in the talks said that Britain and Brussels still needed to overcome deep-rooted disagreements over EU fishing rights in British waters, “level playing field” conditions for business and governance arrangements of the future deal.

The “main problems remain blocked”, said one EU official, noting nonetheless that a lot of drafting work had taken place on the level playing field issue, in the effort to find common ground.

In particular, no headway has been made in divvying up each side’s fishing rights for the more than 100 fish stocks that are spread between EU and UK waters. The EU is also still pushing to secure long-term guaranteed access for its boats to British waters.

On the level playing field, the two sides are seeking to craft a set of common principles that would prevent governments from giving their businesses an unfair advantage through subsidies. 

While one EU official said that there were “glimmers of hope” on the level playing field, another person involved in the negotiation said that even this was “an optimistic take”.

The small window of time left for negotiations is presenting a challenge in the talks even in areas where there is considerable agreement, such as social security co-operation, as officials work intensively to hammer out a joint legal text. 

The hectic pace of talks reflects an agreement struck between EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier and his UK counterpart David Frost last week to shift negotiations into a high-intensity format, with talks taking place every single day unless otherwise agreed. 

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said on Thursday that negotiations were in “a critical phase”.

“We are making good progress. But on the two critical issues, level playing field and fisheries, there we would like to see more progress,” she said. “We are now in depth in detailing [how we could] construct a system that is fair for both sides for a level playing field.”

Outside of the biggest flash points, negotiations are also still open on other issues that will define the trading conditions for UK and EU companies for decades to come. These include the extent of future market access rights for engineers, architects and other regulated service providers and the rules for assessing whether a product is actually British or European, and so eligible for tariff-free trade. Officials are also still mired in the details of future security co-operation.

Talks on the sharing of commercial data — a crucial issue for business — are also progressing slowly. While the UK agreed wide-ranging provisions on this in its trade deal with Japan, the EU has very limited room for manoeuvre owing to a ruling from the European Court of Justice in July on enforcement of EU privacy standards.

Negotiations in Brussels will continue until at least Monday and could stretch on longer, according to people briefed on the talks.


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