‘Everyone fed up with waiting for Godot’ says MEP, as Brexit talks expected to go down to the wire

Meanwhile EU negotiator Michel Barnier says there is still a chance of a Brexit deal, ‘but the path to it is very narrow’.
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By Martin Banks

Martin Banks is a senior reporter at the Parliament Magazine

18 Dec 2020

Speaking in the European Parliament on Friday, Barnier criticised the UK for the “very short deadline in which we are now constrained.”

Talks continue in Brussels but the clock if fast ticking towards the 31 December which sees the end of the UK’s transitional period.

Parliament’s group leaders have also insisted that any deal must be agreed by midnight this Sunday, so MEPs have a chance to scrutinise it.

Barnier, addressing members before resuming his talks with his UK counterpart David Frost, was markedly critical of the UK for insisting on the 31 December deadline, saying, “It is the Brits who decided on this very short deadline and, in June, refused  any possible extension which was on the table. I find it regrettable the Brits did not want to go further.”

He warned that it had taken four to five years to get a “less ambitious” agreement with Canada and Japan. “So, 31 December is the moment of truth.”

After 47 years of “common actions” he said the last nine months had been marked by “negotiations, the like of which we have never seen before.”

Barnier warned, “Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. It is hardly surprising that, in the last hours at our disposal, the talks have become extremely difficult with some hard nuts to crack.”

“The British have established very strong red lines and say they want to regain their entire sovereignty, but they too have to respect the sovereignty of the EU and our Member States" Michel Barnier

He said, “The British have established very strong red lines and say they want to regain their entire sovereignty, but they too have to respect the sovereignty of the EU and our Member States.

“We have a red line as well: that the EU of 27 is founded on common values and the single market and we must preserve these. Cooperation has to be open, but it also has to be fair and free and based on a level playing field or fair competition, as I would prefer to put it.”

Barnier told MEPs, “If the UK wants to depart from these standards in the future that is their right, but it brings consequences.

“The UK says it wants to regain sovereignty over fisheries and we can accept that. But if, following a period of readjustment, the UK wants to cut access to its waters to EU fishermen then the EU has the sovereign right to react by adjusting the conditions for UK fisheries products to the single market.”

He added, “And this is where we have come up against one of the main hurdles in these talks. It would not be fair or acceptable if EU fishermen were not allowed the right to fish in UK waters when the rest of any agreement would remain stable in terms of the rights of UK businesses.”

Barnier said the EU was “offering the UK an agreement the like of which we have never offered to a third party before, including zero tariffs.”

He warned, “We are now in the crucial hours, but these are fundamental issues for the EU: the right to access to our markets and the other way around, no more or less.

“We are not prepared to sign a deal at any price or at any cost. I cannot say what will become of these talks, but we are in the home straight and we have to be ready for all possibilities including a no deal on 1 January” Michel Barnier

“We are not prepared to sign a deal at any price or at any cost. I cannot say what will become of these talks, but we are in the home straight and we have to be ready for all possibilities including a no deal on 1 January.”

He also addressed concerns voiced by group leaders in the European Parliament who say they fear they do not have time now to scrutinise any deal.

On this, he said, “A text on any contingency measures will be put to parliament

“I was once an MEP and parliament needs to be familiar with any text to have the right to have ownership of this. What is more important than the UK-EU future relations is the European project which has been called into question. The UK is a big country and one we respect. We must have a deal, if not today, then later.

“Right now, we find ourselves in a very serious and sombre situation. This is our last attempt to reach an acceptable deal in terms of fisheries. I don’t know if we can do it, but we will try to find a compromise.”

In the debate Belgian member Guy Verhofstadt said, "I am an optimist so I think there will be a deal. But we must be realistic. Everyone here is talking about a deal by Sunday, but we may need more time or even to stop the clock. We know the cherry-picking attitude of the Brits but what is most important is for the EU not to panic because it would be devastating for our companies if there is unfair completion.”

He also called for the continued UK participation of the Erasmus education scheme, saying, “it will be this generation that will bring the UK back to the EU in coming decades.”

"The talks will go down to the wire, but everyone is fed up with waiting for Godot. Barnier has gone above and beyond what was needed but there has been a historic lack of responsibility by the UK. For me, a cliff edge now seems inevitable" Christophe Hansen MEP

German MEP David McAllister, chair of the UK Coordination Group (UKCG) in parliament, said, “These talks have been intense and tough, and we are under extreme pressure. The EU has never agreed a trade deal of such scope in nine months and the conference of presidents said on Thursday it stands ready to organise a plenary if a deal is agreed by Sunday. We need a thorough scrutiny of the final text but be clear: this will not serve as a precedence for future trade deals.”

He said, “There is a narrow path to a deal, but differences remain to be bridged especially on fisheries and this will be very challenging, so we have to be prepared for all scenarios. The disruption will happen with or without a deal and this is a consequence of the UK decision to leave.”

Spanish deputy Iratxe Garcia said the “populist rhetoric coming out of the UK for last decade” had, so far, prevented a deal.

It was vital to have contingency measures now for road and air travel.

She said, “We can send a clear signal that the EU stands together and it would be UK that will suffer more if there is no deal. Boris Johnson’s ally, Donald Trump, will soon be history so Boris stands alone and the cost of a no deal will prove a significant blow to the UK economy.”

She told Barnier, “You have to hear the voice of parliament which must give it consent and leaving it this late is not acceptable. So, I hope we can see a provisional text as soon as possible because we need time to agree to it. It can only pass it the two sides reach a deal by Sunday evening, but they must guarantee the right of EU fishermen to fish in UK waters.”

UKCG member Nathalie Loiseau, a French member, said, “The EU is offering entente cordial to the UK which faces splendid isolation. But we must be able to vote on contingency measures if talks fails. I don’t want to talk about failure, but we must be ready for that.”

Christophe Hansen, also a UKCG member, said, “The talks will go down to the wire, but everyone is fed up with waiting for Godot. Barnier has gone above and beyond what was needed but there has been a historic lack of responsibility by the UK. For me, a cliff edge now seems inevitable. Be clear, a no deal would be serious failure of state craft in most brutal way, so I call on Boris Johnson to embrace this last chance to get a deal.”

MEPs were later due to vote on further contingency measures proposed by the EU. A proposal of extending current fisheries authorisations, based on reciprocal access to EU and UK waters, will be put to the vote.

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