The UK and the EU have just completed round 8 of their talks on their potential future relationship. With just over three and a half months to go until the end of the transition period, you would expect the negotiations to now be in their final stages, perhaps even finessing the legal texts which would govern that relationship. Instead the statements released by both chief negotiators make for familiar reading.
The UK’s Chief Negotiator David Frost - now Lord Frost – said amongst other things:
“These were useful exchanges. However, a number of challenging areas remain and the divergences on some are still significant.
“We have been consistently clear from the start of this process about the basis on which agreement is possible between us. Those fundamentals remain. We have engaged in discussions in all areas. We have consistently made proposals which provide for open and fair competition, on the basis of high standards, in a way which is appropriate to a modern free trade agreement between sovereign and autonomous equals.
Lord Frost also noted that the UK remained committed to getting an agreement before the middle of October – which was the deadline set by UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson earlier in the week.
The EU’s statement by Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier offered more detail on the areas of disagreement, saying amongst other things:
“The UK is refusing to include indispensable guarantees of fair competition in our future agreement, while requesting free access to our market. We have taken note of the UK government's statement on “A new approach to subsidy control”. But this falls significantly short of the commitments made in the Political Declaration.
Similarly, we are still missing important guarantees on non-regression from social, environmental, labour and climate standards.
Modern trade agreements are about ensuring sustainable and fair partnerships with high standards in areas like the environment, climate, employment, health and safety, and taxation.
These principles are now at the heart of EU trade policy: with the UK, and with other partners around the world.
And they are at the heart of the EU's negotiating mandate. For the EU, its Member States and the European Parliament, any future economic partnership, regardless of its level of ambition, must ensure that competition is both free and fair.
The UK has moreover not engaged on other major issues, such as credible horizontal dispute settlement mechanisms, essential safeguards for judicial cooperation and law enforcement, fisheries, or level playing field requirements in the areas of transport and energy.
There are also many uncertainties about Great Britain's sanitary and phyto-sanitary regime as from 1 January 2021. More clarity is needed for the EU to do the assessment for the third-country listing of the UK.”
It is important to remember that much of this week’s negotiating round was overshadowed by the publication of the UK’s Internal Market Bill, which led to an extraordinary meeting of the Withdrawal Agreement’s Joint Committee and also extreme concern from the European Commission.
Perhaps given that backdrop, it was quite remarkable that negotiations didn’t collapse this week. Although even if you take the Internal Market Bill out of the equation, most of the differences which existed at the beginning of the year are still there.