EU Sees Tough Brexit Stance Prompting Temporary U.K. Retreat
The risk of a trade war between the European Union and the U.K. may be receding, with the bloc suggesting its forceful negotiating stance led to a softening in London’s position.
The European Commission, the bloc’s executive arm, briefed ambassadors on Wednesday that the U.K.’s threat of ditching parts of the Brexit agreement relating to Northern Ireland may be off the table for now, according to a diplomatic note seen by Bloomberg. The EU is considering tearing up its trade agreement with the U.K. if it follows through.
The ambassadors were also told that the EU’s vigorous response seems to have played a role in improving the mood of the negotiations and that the U.K. appeared more willing to engage in the talks.
Britain pushed back on the idea that anything has changed in their approach to the negotiation.
“I would suggest that our friends in the EU don’t interpret the reasonable tone that I usually use in my discussions with them as implying any softening in the substantive position,” U.K. Brexit minister David Frost said in the House of Lords on Thursday. He added, “Whatever messages to the contrary the EU may think they’ve heard or read, our position has not changed.”
EU Brexit chief Maros Sefcovic met with Frost last week and the two will meet again on Friday in Brussels.
“I acknowledge and welcome the change in tone of the discussion with David Frost today and I hope this will lead to tangible results for the people in Northern Ireland,” Sefcovic told reporters after the Nov. 12 meeting.
On Thursday, Frost offered a more nuanced stance on one of the thorniest issues that the U.K. has raised -- the role of the European Court of Justice in governing disputes in Northern Ireland. The U.K. has previously demanded the removal of the ECJ from Northern Ireland oversight, but Frost’s latest remark suggested a possible compromise.
“The EU defines the Court of Justice as the final arbiter of what EU law means. We don’t challenge that and we can’t do anything about that,” he said. “It is the settlement of disputes that is the difficulty here.”
The improved tone from the U.K., according to the EU note, didn’t include a change in substance in London’s argument to renegotiate the so-called Northern Ireland protocol, the agreement that allowed the U.K. to leave the EU’s single market without creating a hard border on the island of Ireland.
Under the deal, goods moving into Northern Ireland from the rest of the U.K. are subject to customs checks if they are at risk of being later moved into the EU. Britain is demanding changes to the accord, which the government says has inhibited trade between different parts of the U.K.’s own single market.
The ambassadors were told that the British threat to suspend the protocol could return, according to the note.
“If we can find a negotiated solution, that is better,” Frost said Thursday. “If we can’t find one, the safeguards are legitimate.” Hr added that the U.K. hasn’t made any commitments on timing when it comes to deciding whether to invoke Article 16 -- which allows either side to suspend parts of the protocol in certain situations.
The EU has offered compromises that it says would reduce customs checks on goods arriving in Northern Ireland by half, and inspections on many food products by 80%. But the U.K. shot the proposal down, saying it “did not currently deal effectively with the fundamental difficulties.”
The EU’s financial services chief Mairead McGuinness echoed the commission’s positive sentiment, telling a conference on Thursday that the last week “seemed a little more positive” for Brexit negotiations.
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