Clamour for Brexit delay as trade talks on brink of collapse

Opposition parties have appealed to the EU for Brexit trade negotiations to be extended after the latest round of talks left the process on the brink of collapse.

Empty seats are seen in the first two rows as European Union's Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier (R) speaks during a news conference following the third round of Brexit talks. Picture: Getty

British and EU said negotiations broke up having made little progress this week, with just one more round before the two sides must decide whether to extend the process, or walk away altogether.

Sensitive issues of fishing rights and a “level playing field” on workplace and environmental regulations still stand in the way of a deal, with the UK’s chief negotiator David Frost warning: “We very much need a change in EU approach for the next round”.

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EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier claimed the British side “did not engage in a real discussion” on the most difficult issues.

Boris Johnson has repeatedly said he will not extend the post-Brexit transition period, during which EU law continues to apply in the UK, beyond its scheduled conclusion at the end of the year.

An extension would need to be agreed by July 1, with the two sides set to meet again at the start of June.

The stalemate has prompted the SNP, Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru, the SDLP, Greens and Alliance Party to write a joint letter to Mr Barnier to voice their “deep concern at the lack of progress”.

“Leaving the EU with a bad deal – or no deal – this year would be catastrophic for many businesses already struggling to survive,” the parties state. “With only weeks left, it is critical that this scenario does not come to pass.”

The letter argues that “a consensus is taking shape” and expresses the hope that “the UK government will soon recognise reality”, asking Mr Barnier to “prioritise this issue in the final round of negotiations”.

A senior UK official close to the negotiations said the talks had been “a little bit tetchy at times” and “disruptive”. And in a statement released at the end of a week of talks yesterday, Mr Frost said the two sides “made very little progress towards agreement on the most significant outstanding issues between us”.

Mr Frost said the UK would continue to reject level playing field measures “which would bind this country to EU law or standards, or determine our domestic legal regimes, in a way that is unprecedented in Free Trade Agreements and not envisaged in the Political Declaration.

“As soon as the EU recognises that we will not conclude an agreement on that basis, we will be able to make progress.”

On fisheries, he said the EU “continues to insist on fisheries arrangements and access to UK fishing waters in a way that is incompatible with our future status as an independent coastal state.

“We are fully committed to agreeing fishing provisions in line with the Political Declaration, but we cannot agree arrangements that are manifestly unbalanced and against the interests of the UK fishing industry.”

In a bid to put pressure on the EU to reach a deal, the UK government said it would publish its draft legal texts next week.

Mr Frost added: “It is hard to understand why the EU insists on an ideological approach which makes it more difficult to reach a mutually beneficial agreement.”

The UK government said it remains optimistic a deal can be done, but an official said: “We’ve always made clear that if an agreement can’t be reached then trading on what we call Australia terms is perfectly doable and satisfactory.”

Mr Barnier warned that even if the UK now agreed to pursue a simple free trade deal, rather than the more comprehensive agreement being sought by London, it would take up to two years to negotiate the tariffs that would need to be applied to a range of British goods.

“We are not going to bargain away our European values to the benefit of the British economy,” he said. “Economic and trading fair play is not for sale. It is not ‘a nice to have’, it is ‘a must have’.”

Nationwide polling suggests a majority of people want the transition phase to be extended.

A poll by Focaldata yesterday found that 83 per cent of people in Scotland and 77 per cent across Britain say the government should agree a delay.

The SNP’s Westminster leader Ian Blackford warned that “time is running out until we hit the hard Brexit deadline”.

“It is vital that the Tory government does the only responsible thing and accepts a two-year extension to the transition period,” Mr Blackford said.

“Crashing out with a bad deal or no deal in the middle of the coronavirus crisis, would deal a double hammer blow to the economy just when we will need all the help we can get to save jobs, businesses and living standards.

“The coronavirus economic crash is the worst in living memory. People and businesses are already struggling to get by.

“The Tory government must put its responsibilities to the economy ahead of its Brexit obsession.”

Labour under Sir Keir Starmer has so far not demanded an extension to the transition phase, despite the leader of the opposition suggesting one might be necessary during the party’s leadership election.

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