Brexit trade talks between the UK and EU are actually “going backwards” as negotiators “waste valuable time”, Brussels’ chief negotiator has said.
A visibly annoyed Michel Barnier told reporters on Friday after a week-long round of talks that, on some subjects, there had been “no progress whatsoever on the issues that matter”.
“Too often this week, it felt as if we were going backwards more than forward. Given the short time left ... today at this stage an agreement between the UK and the European Union seems unlikely. I still do not understand why we are wasting valuable time,” he said.
David Frost, the UK’s chief negotiator, said in a written statement that he believed “agreement is still possible” but that “it is clear that it will not be easy to achieve”.
Mr Barnier stuck to his previous assessment that an agreement was “unlikely”. He said there had been some minor progress on “technical issues”, such as UK participation in EU programmes and anti-money laundering, but that the fundamentals were still out of place.
Mr Frost said: “The EU is still insisting not only that we must accept continuity with EU state aid and fisheries policy, but also that this must be agreed before any further substantive work can be done in any other area of the negotiation, including on legal texts.
“This makes it unnecessarily difficult to make progress. There are other significant areas which remain to be resolved and, even where there is a broad understanding between negotiators, there is a lot of detail to work through. Time is short for both sides.”
However, Mr Barnier said the UK would find that all countries with which it tried to negotiate agreements would require the British government to sign up to common rules.
“No international agreement was ever reached without the parties agreeing to common rules, and I can predict with absolute certainty this will also be the case of trade agreements between the UK and other partners in the future such as the United States, Japan, and Australia,” he said.
He continued: “Apart from the question of a level playing field, there are still many other areas where progress is needed.
“For example, obviously, fisheries, where we have made no progress whatsoever on the issues that matter; governance, where we are still far from agreeing on the essential issue of dispute settlement; law enforcement, where we still struggle to agree on the necessary guarantees to protect citizens’ fundamental rights and personal data; and also mobility and social-security coordination, where our positions also remain far apart.”
The Brexit transition period ends on 31 December this year, after which EU rules and benefits will cease to apply to the UK. Both sides want to get a trade deal agreed by the autumn so that it can be ratified before the UK’s economic break with Europe.
The economic damage to the UK from the new barriers to trade is expected to be significant even more so if no free-trade agreement can be reached.