Exhausted negotiators struggle to secure Brexit deal

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Nine months after the talks began, the tension arose when Michel Barnier and David Frost walked into the windowless “cave” on Friday in an attempt to sort out the post-Brexit relationship between Britain and the EU.

Negotiations, which began in March and were due to end in July and then October, were finally entering what both sides recognized to be the end of the game. “They have gone as far as they can get,” a British official said. .

Supported by take-out pizzas and sandwiches, Mr Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, and Lord Frost, his British counterpart, led teams that worked late into the night in London this week on a future deal relationship.

But an air of grave uncertainty hung over the process as negotiations were “suspended” to allow Boris Johnson to speak to Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, in an attempt to break the impasse. British officials had previously warned that the talks were at “a very difficult point”.

Both sides now agree that any deal signed by officials at the Department for Business’s dismal underground conference center – a stone’s throw from the UK parliament – will have to be turned over to higher authorities.

British Prime Minister Johnson, who has been working this weekend since his retirement from Checkers Country, is ready to speak to other European leaders in an attempt to strike a deal that will support attempts to rebuild relations between the UK United and the EU after Brexit.

An electronic notice board in London displays a government information message advising businesses to prepare for Brexit © REUTERS

The same issues have hampered talks from the start and went unresolved at 11 a.m. on Friday as Mr Barnier and Lord Frost returned to the negotiating table: the so-called level playing field to ensure fair trade competition and the EU access to UK fisheries. waters.

Both issues are at the heart of the negotiations: Mr Johnson’s desire to regain sovereignty over the UK regulatory regime and fisheries, and the EU’s insistence that any deal giving access to its vast domestic market of 450 million inhabitants must be accompanied by conditions.

A real sense of urgency is now seizing the negotiations and not just because time is running out before the end of the British transition period to Brexit on January 1.

On Monday, MPs will start voting on Mr Johnson’s controversial legislation that would allow ministers to tear up parts of the UK’s withdrawal treaty with the EU over Northern Ireland.

The prospect of MEPs voting to violate an EU treaty while negotiators simultaneously attempt to agree on a new one has thrilled both sides. Charles Michel, President of the European Council, stressed that Britain must fully respect its withdrawal treaty.

On Thursday, the 27 European leaders meet for a summit of heads of government in Brussels, with both sides determined to settle the matter by then.

Discussions in the ‘cave’, adorned with posters promoting Britain’s trade ambitions after Brexit, were in part dominated by heated bickering over how to divide existing EU fishing rights in British waters, worth around 650 million euros each year, and of them in the UK.

British officials complain that the European side is reluctant to go beyond an old offer to sacrifice around 18 percent of those fishing rights.

Over the past two days, negotiators have traded cash for species, with talks amid relentless pressure from France not to sell off the sector.

Jean Castex, French Prime Minister, visited Boulogne-sur-Mer on Thursday to warn that the country was ready to veto the fruits of Mr Barnier’s efforts.

Satisfying French President Emmanuel Macron will be a top priority for Brussels leaders if a deal comes to fruition, with Paris at the forefront of a worried group of EU capitals that merged during this week.

The group – which also includes the Netherlands, Denmark, Belgium, Italy and Spain – is concerned that too many concessions have been made to Britain and insists it It would be better for the talks to drag on rather than for the EU to agree to a bad deal. .

In a debriefing with the ambassadors on Wednesday and a separate session with senior advisers to national leaders on Thursday, the group insisted that Barnier remain at the negotiating table until he secures a deal that protect their fishermen and safeguard their businesses, or the talks fail.

France and the rest of the world fear that not only the European Commission but also Berlin are ready to accept a sub-optimal deal, and they have called for a screening of anything that emerges from the negotiations before anyone hails a positive outcome. .

The complaints were a visible sign that Mr Barnier was running up against the limits of his negotiating mandate and increased the pressure on exhausted EU negotiators after a six-week period of almost uninterrupted daily sessions with their British counterparts.

The constraints on Mr Barnier have helped escalate talks over the EU’s insistence on its right to swiftly hand out economic sanctions to Britain should it violate the terms of a future relationships.

Brussels is demanding so-called cross-retaliatory rights that would allow it, for example, to hit British manufactures with tariffs if Britain reneges on its equal commitments.

Speaking to reporters on Friday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesperson Steffen Seibert said: “There is always room for compromise. This is our basic attitude, even when time is running out. ”

The days to come will determine if he is right.

Additional reporting by Guy Chazan in Berlin

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