Post-Brexit deal between London and Brussels looks imminent


Published: 2020-12-23 20:10

Last Updated: 2024-06-15 00:56

Photo: Evening Standard
Photo: Evening Standard

After ten months of tense and painstaking negotiations, the European Union and the United Kingdom Wednesday appeared close to reaching an agreement on their future trade relationship, which would allow them to avoid a no-deal Brexit eight days ahead of schedule.

"We are in the final stage," a European source said. A second source spoke of "great opportunities" to seal the deal in the evening or Thursday.

A diplomatic source said, "Things have moved on the British side, but the devil lies in the details of the texts, and we have not come to that yet." "There are still difficulties," added a second diplomat.

European sources said that the negotiations, since Monday, are in the hands of the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who have intensified contacts between them.

The arrival of European fishermen in British waters was still Wednesday morning the final sticking point in the discussions that were almost completed, including previously problematic topics, such as how to settle disputes and measures to protect against any unfair competition.

In theory, an agreement Wednesday or Thursday would leave enough time for it to enter into force Jan. 1 when the United Kingdom permanently exits the common market after it formally left the European Union on Jan. 31 2020.

The European Parliament must later ratify the nearly 2,000-page deal.

- Sharing water -

The success of these negotiations, which began in March, will allow the two parties to save face from the "no-agreement" option, which is politically embarrassing and economically harmful.

In the event that no agreement is reached, trade exchanges between the European Union and London will have to be conducted in accordance with the rules of the World Trade Organization, which implies imposing quotas and customs duties, as well as administrative procedures that may lead to massive bottlenecks and delays in delivery.

This is a particularly black scenario for the United Kingdom, which suffers from a faster-spreading strain of the emerging coronavirus that has virtually isolated it from the rest of the world.

Despite its minimal economic importance, marine fishing has political and social importance to many member states, including France, the Netherlands, Denmark and Ireland. But the United Kingdom made him a symbol of regaining its sovereignty after secession.

The negotiations focus on sharing about 650 million euros of products that the European Union catches every year in UK waters and the length of acclimatization period that European fishermen need with the new data.

This week, the European Union rejected an offer it considered unacceptable from London, which demanded that it give up 35 percent of the fish that are not caught on the high seas and 60 percent of the total catch, over a transitional period of three years.

Brussels had proposed a few days ago to give up 25 percent of the 650 million after a period of six years.

A European diplomat said that "the ball is in Boris Johnson's court," considering that the proposal of the European Union is the "final offer" in light of the concerns that it has already raised in some countries, especially Denmark.

In any case, European negotiator Michel Barnier told member states Tuesday that the European Union was ready to negotiate "until the end of the year and beyond" if the stumbling block over sea fishing continues.

- Strict conditions -

Reaching an agreed text in ten months will be an achievement for negotiators given its huge size, knowing that such talks usually take years.

COVID-19 further complicated the task when negotiators were forced for several weeks to video chat and sometimes suspend discussions due to positive cases emerging within the negotiation teams.

In the event of an agreement, the European Union would provide its former member with no tariffs or quotas access to its huge market of 450 million consumers, which is unprecedented.

But this openness will be accompanied by strict conditions as companies in Britain will have to comply with a number of regulations that will evolve over time in relation to the environment, labor law and taxes.

A mechanism will be adopted to allow both parties to quickly activate countermeasures in the event of differences on these criteria.

The European Union has also called for guarantees related to government aid, to ensure that London does not resort to supporting its companies as they wish.

In the absence of an agreement, Europe will lose much less than the United Kingdom, as the British export 47 percent of their products to the continent, while the European Union sells only 8 percent of its goods in the United Kingdom.

But some countries will be affected more than others due to their close relations with the UK, such as Ireland, the Nordic countries, Germany and France. The latter generated a trade surplus of 12.5 billion euros in 2019 with London.