Brexit trade talks difficult as EU and UK still split on key issues - GulfToday

Brexit trade talks difficult as EU and UK still split on key issues

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Shoppers wear face masks at a shopping mall in Johannesburg, South Africa, on Wednesday. Associated Press

Britain and the European Union remained divided over competition and fishing on Wednesday as they tried to clinch a Brexit trade deal in time to avoid a turbulent split at the end of the year.

Ireland said a deal was still possible before Britain leaves the EU’s orbit on Dec. 31, 11 months after it formally quit the bloc and entered a transition period keeping it in the bloc’s customs union and single market until the year ends.

But with a dizzying array of conflicting signals coming from the two sides, Britain has not yet managed to agree a deal that would ease the pain of its departure by keeping in place zero-tariff and zero-quota access to the single market.

British Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick told Sky News that “at the moment there isn’t sufficient progress” at the talks.

Irish Prime Minister Micheál Martin said the gap on how much fish EU boats could catch in British waters was still wide, but that he believed there should be a deal given the economic shock that failure would trigger.

“On balance, I think given the progress that has been made that there should be a deal,” Martin told national broadcaster RTE. “A no-deal would be an appalling shock to the economic system on top of COVID-19.”

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen are in close contact and were expected to hold another call on Wednesday.

British sources said talks remained “difficult” and underscored the differences. EU sources were more upbeat.

The British pound rose, as did midcap stocks. Investors expect swings in the currency as overnight volatility was holding above 25%.

Johnson, who is also grappling with a deepening COVID-19 outbreak and a border crisis at Europe’s busiest truck port, has said he will not sign up to any deal that undermines British sovereignty.

Walking away from the talks might win applause from many Brexit supporters in Britain but could cause severe disruptions to goods trade which makes up half of annual EU-UK commerce, worth nearly a trillion dollars in all.

DEAL TIME: Britain, which joined the EU’s precursor in 1973, has often had stormy relations with the countries in the Franco-German led project which sought to bind the ruined nations of post-World War Two Europe into a global power.

The scale of possible Brexit disruption has been laid bare by France closing its borders to Britain for 48 hours, citing a new coronavirus variant. This left thousands of European truckers stranded in southern England and disrupted food supplies.

The EU is making a “final push” to strike a trade deal though rifts over fishing rights remain, EU negotiator Michel Barnier said on Tuesday.

Ireland’s Martin said that if there was a breakthrough on Wednesday or Thursday, officials in Europe could be working on the text on Christmas Day.

“I’m still reasonably optimistic but there’s no news to report to you this morning,” Britain’s Jenrick said. “There’s still the same serious areas of disagreement whether that’s on fisheries or the level playing field.”

Level playing field is trade jargon for ensuring fair competition. EU leaders fear that after Brexit the United Kingdom could ease regulation to undercut others and gouge EU market share. Enforcement is an important issue.

Beside competition, the sides are haggling over how much EU fishermen can catch in Britain’s waters: essentially how many sole, sand eels and mackerel EU boats can fish per year, where and how to renew such agreements.

Barnier told EU envoys on Tuesday that Britain’s latest offer on sharing out the fish catch from British waters from 2021 was “totally unacceptable”, according to EU diplomats.

Meanwhile, European Union member states have started to prepare their procedure to put in place a new trade deal with the United Kingdom from Jan. 1, three diplomatic sources in the bloc told Reuters, indicating a deal could be imminent.

Both sides are racing to avoid a turbulent split when Britain leaves the EU’s orbit on Dec. 31, 11 months after it formally quit the bloc and entered a transition period keeping it in the EU customs union and single market.

The two sides have given a dizzying array of conflicting signals: Britain on Wednesday said that two significant issues - fishing and competition - still remained to be resolved and that there had not been sufficient progress for a deal.

But during a meeting with the EU’s executive, the European Commission, - which is negotiating with Britain on behalf of all the 27 member states in the bloc - national diplomats in Brussels were told to be ready for a meeting on Thursday should a deal come.

“It seems the deal is pretty much there. It’s a matter of announcing it today or tomorrow,” said one EU diplomat.

The diplomat said the Council, which represents the member states in Brussels, had started preparations to enable a “provisional application”, or fast-track implementation, of the agreement.

Sterling stood up 1% on the day, above $1.35, and up 0.7% against the euro at 90.36 pence.

While EU sources have repeatedly signalled a deal may be near, British sources said on Wednesday that talks remained “difficult” and underscored the differences.

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