Brexit Talks Set to Resume Amid Last-Minute Saber Rattling
Michel Barnier, chief negotiator for the European Union, center, walks in the Westminster district of London, U.K. (Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg)

Brexit Talks Set to Resume Amid Last-Minute Saber Rattling

U.K. and European Union officials will resume face-to-face trade negotiations this weekend amid last-minute warnings from both sides of large disagreements that could scuttle a trade deal.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said there are “substantial and important differences to be bridged” -- a sentiment echoed by the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier. The pound extended its fall, hitting its lowest against the euro in a week.

Each side says the onus is on the other to make a decisive move if a deal is to be reached. With little more than a month before the U.K. leaves the bloc’s single market -- with or without an accord -- time is now running short. If no agreement is reached, millions of consumers and businesses will face disruption and additional costs from Dec. 31.

“Everybody is working very hard -- but, clearly, there are still substantial and important differences to be bridged,” Johnson said in a pooled television interview on Friday. “The likelihood of a deal is very much determined by our friends and partners in the EU. There’s a deal there to be done if they want to.”

The last-minute saber rattling doesn’t necessarily mean the two sides will fail to reach a deal. Over the course of almost four years of negotiations, both the EU and U.K. have repeatedly talked down the prospects of any agreement as a tactic to put pressure on each other and politicians at home.

Diplomatic Briefing

An accord could yet be reached as soon as next week, according to three EU officials -- but they cautioned that the bloc is still to be fully convinced that Johnson is ready to sign on to any agreement. The talks could even run on until the following week, they added.

The concept of sovereignty, and whether the U.K. government can show it has won it back from the EU, has emerged as a major stumbling block to a deal across several key issues.

In a private meeting with EU diplomats on Friday, EU Barnier complained that Britain’s insistence on annual negotiations over fish quotas -- something the EU rejects -- was down to the government in London seeing the issue as a matter of sovereignty. The point was later underscored by Britain’s chief negotiator, David Frost.

“It is late, but a deal is still possible, and I will continue to talk until it’s clear that it isn’t,” Frost tweeted. “But for a deal to be possible it must fully respect U.K. sovereignty. That is not just a word -- it has practical consequences.”

Barnier Pessimism

Barnier told the diplomats he isn’t particularly optimistic about securing a deal -- but he will continue to try for a few more days, according to officials with knowledge of the discussions. Unless the U.K. takes the necessary decisions quickly, he warned, reaching an accord will be all but impossible, one EU diplomat briefed on the meeting said.

Talks between the sides have long been deadlocked in three key areas: access to British fishing waters, the level competitive playing field, and how any agreement will be enforced. Barnier told the ambassadors that the disagreements over these three subjects remain large.

Barnier arrived in London on Friday evening for a round of daily face-to-face negotiations starting on Saturday. RTE reported that he will make a new offer on fish, accepting a 15%-to-18% cut in the EU’s share of the catch in British waters. But officials on both sides said this figure had been discussed more than a month ago and the U.K. had already rejected it.

Fishing Quotas

Britain is still seeking a “significant” increase in the number of fish it is allowed to catch in its domestic waters. Under EU rules, the U.K. is allocated less than a third of the quota. One EU official suggested Britain wants to increase that to 80% -- a suggestion people close to the negotiations said was wide of the mark. Previously, U.K. officials have hinted that 50% would suffice, although that figure is still somewhat higher than what the bloc has said it is prepared to accept.

With the outcome of the talks still uncertain, ambassadors called on the European Commission to start preparing contingency measures should the negotiations collapse.

Any deal will need need to be ratified by both the European and British parliaments, meaning one has to be agreed weeks before the end of the post-Brexit transition period on Dec. 31.

The path to a deal
Saturday Nov. 28

Talks resume in London after face-to-face negotiations were suspended the previous week.

Depending on progress, Prime Minister Boris Johnson and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen may hold a call -- but this hasn’t been confirmed.

Thursday Dec. 10-11EU holds a summit. If a deal hasn’t been signed by now, expect preparations for Britain’s messy exit from the single market to figure prominently.
Wednesday Dec. 16European Parliament scheduled to vote on any deal. But this could be delayed to Monday Dec. 28.
Thursday Dec. 31End of Brexit transition period. The final, immovable deadline. If the two sides haven’t signed a trade deal, Britain will default to trading with the EU on World Trade Organization terms.

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