Brexit deadlock ends as EU and UK return to negotiating table

After an impassioned speech by Michel Barnier in plenary on Wednesday morning, relations appear to have thawed between the two sides and “intensive” negotiations will now resume.

By Lorna Hutchinson

Lorna Hutchinson is Deputy Editor of The Parliament Magazine

21 Oct 2020

The UK’s chief Brexit negotiator David Frost announced on Wednesday evening that a “basis for negotiations with the EU and Michel Barnier has been re-established.”

“Intensive talks will happen every day and will begin tomorrow afternoon, 22 October, in London.”

The sudden change of tune came after the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, addressed plenary on Wednesday morning, stating that a Brexit agreement was “within reach” and that progress could be made in the next few days on the basis of legal texts.

Barnier said, “We will seek the necessary compromises on both sides in order to do our utmost to reach an agreement. We will do so right up until the last day that it’s possible to do so, our door will always remain open right up until the very end.”

In a Downing Street statement on Wednesday evening, the UK said that it had “studied carefully the statement by Michel Barnier to the European Parliament this morning,” adding, “as the EU’s Chief Negotiator his words are authoritative.”

The statement said that both Boris Johnson and Michael Gove had “made it clear in recent days that a fundamental change in approach was needed from the EU from that shown in recent weeks.”

“We welcome the fact that Mr Barnier acknowledged both points this morning, and additionally that movement would be needed from both sides in the talks if agreement was to be reached” Downing Street statement

“They made clear that the EU had to be serious about talking intensively, on all issues, and bringing the negotiation to a conclusion. They were also clear that the EU had to accept once again that it was dealing with an independent and sovereign country and that any agreement would need to be consistent with that status.”

The statement added, “We welcome the fact that Mr Barnier acknowledged both points this morning, and additionally that movement would be needed from both sides in the talks if agreement was to be reached.”

“As he made clear, any future agreement will be made in respect of the decision-making autonomy of the European Union and with respect for British sovereignty.”

Having discussed “the implications of this statement and the state of play with Mr Barnier earlier today,” the UK said it was “ready to welcome the EU team to London to resume negotiations later this week.”

Acknowledging the “significant gaps” which remain between the two sides’ positions in the most difficult areas, the statement said the UK was “ready, with the EU, to see if it is possible to bridge them in intensive talks.”

“For our part, we remain clear that the best and most established means of regulating the relationship between two sovereign and autonomous parties is one based on a free trade agreement,” it added.

“Turns out we were pushing on an open door this morning in plenary. I welcome this positive turn of events. Enough time was lost with this manufactured mini-crisis. Time to get on with it” Christophe Hansen, EPP

A set of principles for handling this intensified phase of talks has been jointly agreed and stipulates, among others, that negotiations will take place daily including weekends, unless both sides agree otherwise.

This next and final phase of the negotiations will in principle be on the basis of each side’s legal texts while a common approach is found, unless lead negotiators in an individual workstream agree that a different approach is more appropriate.

Moreover, lead negotiators in each of the workstreams should move “as quickly as possible to a read through of both texts, with a view to identification of areas of convergence” which could be expressed either in a two/three-column table or consolidated texts depending on which tool lead negotiators deem most appropriate.

This textual process should be accompanied by discussions in the workstreams on the outstanding more political issues, including the most difficult ones such as the level playing field, governance, fisheries, energy and goods/services provisions.

The initial phase of the negotiations will take place in London from 22 October until 25 October. Thereafter the negotiations should take place in person in London and Brussels, or via teleconference, or a mix of the two, as agreed by both parties.

The news of the détente was met with a mixture of relief and stunned disbelief in Brussels, where growing impatience at the UK’s antics in recent weeks had left many expecting an irretrievable break-down in talks and a slippery slope to a no-deal Brexit.

“Good, the theatrics are over, and we can finally get to work on the details. It simply is in our common interest to make a deal” Manfred Weber, EPP

Manfred Weber, chairman of the EPP, Parliament’s biggest political group, said, “Good, the theatrics are over, and we can finally get to work on the details. It simply is in our common interest to make a deal. Wishing Michel Barnier good luck and as the English would say: break a leg!”

Luxembourg MEP and member of Parliament’s UK Coordination Group (UKCG), Christophe Hansen, said, “Turns out we were pushing on an open door this morning in plenary. I welcome this positive turn of events. Enough time was lost with this manufactured mini-crisis. Time to get on with it.”

Fellow UKCG member, German S&D MEP Bernd Lange expressed relief that the “kindergarten behaviour” was over but said that concrete action must now follow.

“Not just a lot of ado about nothing again. Now we have to negotiate constructively, be willing to compromise and get target-oriented - no more castles in the air - then the impossible can still work.”

“Now we are finally entering the ‘negotiation tunnel.’ Let’s see if there will be light at the end?”

Dutch S&D colleague and fellow UKCG member Kati Piri appeared somewhat taken aback by the news, saying, “Well, what to say... At least good that the UK is back at the negotiating table. Time is ticking, no more time to waste if the UK is genuinely interested in reaching a deal.”

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