EU and UK light fire under Brexit negotiators in last-ditch attempt to reach deal

Commission President Ursula von der Leyen held phone talks with UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Saturday in a bid to revive the stalled Brexit talks.
Brexit negotiations

By Martin Banks

Martin Banks is a senior reporter at the Parliament Magazine

05 Oct 2020

After their conversation, Von der Leyen and Johnson issued a statement which said they had discussed the state of play in the negotiations on the future relationship between the UK and the EU.

The statement said, “They agreed on the importance of finding an agreement, if at all possible, as a strong basis for a strategic EU-UK relationship in future.”

“They endorsed the assessment of both chief negotiators that progress had been made in recent weeks but that significant gaps remained, notably but not only in the areas of fisheries, the level playing field, and governance.”

It said, “They instructed their chief negotiators to work intensively in order to try to bridge those gaps. They agreed to speak on a regular basis on this issue.”

Saturday’s discussions came amid growing concern at the prospect of a No Deal Brexit following the latest round of talks last week.

The talks were supposed to be the last round of negotiations but these will now be extended for up to two more weeks before an EU summit on 15 October.

Last week’s talks in Brussels produced little progress on issues such as state aid and fisheries. Both sides have said a deal needs to be agreed this month to take over from the transition period at the start of 2021.

“They instructed their chief negotiators to work intensively in order to try to bridge those gaps. They agreed to speak on a regular basis on this issue” EU-UK statement

A UK government source said that Saturday’s talks were a chance to “take stock” of post-Brexit trade negotiations and “discuss next steps.”

But on Monday, French MEP Natalie Loiseau, a member of Parliament’s UK Coordination Group (UKCG), told this site, “There seems to be nothing new at this stage and this brings nothing new to the discussions.”

Speaking to reporters on Monday, a Commission spokesman, when asked about the talks, told reporters, “We have nothing new to say but intensive contacts and discussions will continue.”

Meanwhile, another member of the UKCG has welcomed the Commission’s “firm and eloquent” response to the UK’s “blatant breach” of international law.

Kati Piri was speaking to this site after the Commission announced last Thursday it was launching infringement proceedings against the UK over its refusal to withdraw its controversial Internal Market Bill which overrides the Withdrawal Agreement.

The Commission sent a letter of formal notice to the UK government - the first step in an infringement procedure. This was after an EU-imposed deadline passed for the UK to reverse course on domestic legislation which alters the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement.

The EU says this breaks international law but the UK insists it will not scrap the legislation which it sees as being vital to protect its interests.

“There are still large differences in areas such as fisheries, level playing field and governance. These differences are not new; they have been identified for some time now and will not be easily resolved” Deirdre Clune MEP

Piri, a Dutch S&D deputy, told The Parliament Magazine:,“The Bill represents a clear departure from the Withdrawal Agreement. The formal notification by the EU constitutes a legal acknowledgement of London's intention not to backtrack on its blatant breach of international law by triggering the first step of the infringement proceedings as foreseen by the dispute settlement mechanism of the Withdrawal Agreement.”

She added, “More importantly this is also a firm and eloquent political guarantee to safeguard both the Good Friday Agreement and any future partnership between the EU and the UK against the irresponsible actions of this UK government. The European Parliament will continue to be the guarantor of, and uphold, international law.”

Further support for the EU came from Irish MEP Deirdre Clune who told this site, “I don’t think this move from the EU is unexpected particularly following the House of Commons approval of the Internal Market Bill last weekend.”

She added, “But it does add to the difficulties surrounding the negotiations. However, I am still encouraged that those negotiations and both sides are working to develop an outcome.”

On the outcome of the weekend talks, Clune added, “I am encouraged that the talks are continuing and that both sides agree on the importance of finding an agreement. However, there are still large differences in areas such as fisheries, level playing field and governance. These differences are not new; they have been identified for some time now and will not be easily resolved.”

Polish EPP member Danuta Hubner, a member of the Brexit Steering Group (now the UKCG), said, “Sending the letter is still a long way before the Commission might take the UK to the ECJ. Actually, issues can be still settled before being referred to the Court and penalties can be avoided.”

“It is also true that until the end of the year EU law applies to the UK. The infringement procedure can be launched also after January 1 regarding breaches taking place before the end of transition.”

Hubner, a former EU commissioner, said, “There is, of course, a political dimension and the clear position of the European Parliament, which will not give its consent to the future agreement if the Withdrawal Agreement and the Protocol are under risk of being disapplied.”

Responding to the EU move to start legal action, a UK government spokesman told this website, “We have clearly set out our reasons for introducing the measures related to the Northern Ireland Protocol.”

“We need to create a legal safety net to protect the integrity of the UK’s internal market, ensure Ministers can always deliver on their obligation to Northern Ireland and protect the gains from the peace process.”

The launch of infringement proceedings is a common tool the EU regularly used against Member States – last year alone there were 800 open cases across Member States. On average, there are 29 cases against each Member State.

Director of Get Britain Out, Jayne Adye told The Parliament Magazine, “The Commission move is nothing more than a continuation of the political games which have been played throughout the UK-EU trade negotiations.”

“In spite of this attempt to regain leverage in negotiations, the UK government is rightly holding firm. The Bill is a vital piece of legislation which protects the sovereignty of the UK in the event of a No Deal exit. If trade talks break down, we would call for more legislation of a similar nature which would rightfully resolve the remaining issues within the WD which could leave the UK vulnerable to intervention by the EU for decades to come.”

“This legal action is of little consequence when compared to the reclaiming of sovereignty from Brussels which the UK is currently undertaking.”

The EU has said a deal must be reached before the end of October to allow it to be signed off by the Member States before the end of the year, while Johnson has said both sides should “move on” if agreement was not reached by the middle of the month.

Meanwhile, Von der Leyen is in self-isolation after being informed that she was in contact with someone who has subsequently tested positive for COVID-19.

On Monday she said, “I’ve been informed that I participated in a meeting last Tuesday attended by a person who tested positive for COVID-19. In accordance with regulations in force, I’m therefore self-isolating until tomorrow morning.”

The contact occurred during a visit to Lisbon, where Von der Leyen gave a speech on the EU’s proposed recovery plan and resilience. She had been invited to address the Fundação Champalimaud by the President of Portugal, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa.

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