After all the bluster: Brexit talks restart as Michel Barnier arrives in London

Michel Barnier arrives in London for Brexit trade talks for the first time since late September EPA

EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier arrived in London to resume the post-Brexit trade agreement talks, after a week-long standoff.

Barnier will meet with the UK´s chief negotiator, Lord David Frost, after a constructive telephone call on Wednesday, October 21. The UK agreed to resume talks after Mr Barnier said: “compromises on both sides” were needed, in a speech on Wednesday.

Barnier, who had proposed “intensified” talks in London this week, added: “we should be making the most out of the little time left”.

Both sides are seeking an agreement to govern their trading relationship once the UK’s post-Brexit transition period ends in January 2021.

Both sides are calling on the other to compromise ahead of the looming December deadline for a deal, with key areas of disagreement including fishing rights and post-Brexit competition rules.

The EU wants the UK to agree to rules limiting government help for business and industry, as well as a way for the EU to seek redress if they are broken.

Last week the UK told Barnier and his team not to come to London for more talks unless they had fundamentally changed their position on a number of issues.

Downing Street also wanted the EU to begin the process of putting a legal text in order as a way of intensifying progress.

Michel Barnier said the EU is ready to do this and was willing to do so before being told not to show up in London.

“We are ready to discuss all subjects on the basis of legal texts. My team was fully prepared to travel to London to work on that”, he said.

While the prospect of a successful outcome has risen significantly in recent weeks, the two sides are still relatively far apart on substantive issues like the so-called level playing field, governance and the aforementioned fisheries.

The UK is insisting that it wants a Canada-style trade agreement but Brussels has refuted this by pointing out that the current talks are about securing a zero tariff and zero quota deal. Something that Canada’s deal does not contain.

Moreover, the EU says that the relationship between the EU and the UK including proximity and interdependence of economies is a vastly different relationship to the one with Canada.

It’s all about UK fishing waters.

Foreign companies own the rights to catch more than 130,000 tonnes of fish every year that are part of England’s fishing quota, BBC research has revealed. GETTY IMAGES

Barnier warned that talks would fail unless the EU gets fair access to UK waters.

“There will not be a trade deal without a fair solution for fishermen on both sides and we will insist on this right up until the very end.”

“There needs to be mutual access to waters and a fair distribution of quotas for fishermen on both sides”, he said.

Ultimately though Barnier says the EU is willing to negotiate up until the moment possible.

“Our door will always remain open right up until the very end.”

In a more combative statement, European Council president Charles Michel refused to bow to British insistence for the EU to fundamentally change its negotiating stance and cede more to U.K. demands. Michel said instead that if Britain wants vast access to the 27-member bloc’s markets, it will equally have to keep its waters open to EU fishermen, something the U.K. government has said it doesn’t want to do.

In a combative display at the European Parliament, Michel said: “Yes, we want to keep access to U.K. waters for our fishermen. Exactly like you, too, want to keep access to our huge and diversified markets for your companies.”

Speaking before Wednesday’s call, the prime minister’s spokesman said the EU would need to show talks could be a “genuine negotiation rather than one side being expected to make all of the moves”.

No 10 warned that “significant gaps” remain in the most difficult areas.

Negotiations stalled last week after a summit in Brussels where EU leaders called on the UK to “make the necessary moves” towards a deal.

Key areas of disagreement include fishing rights, post-Brexit competition rules and how any deal would be enforced.

In a statement announcing the resumption of talks, No 10 spokesperson said it was “entirely possible that negotiations will not succeed”.

But, they added: “We are ready, with the EU, to see if it is possible to bridge them in intensive talks.”

Format for talks

In line with a demand made by the UK, both sides will resume talks on all subjects based on proposed legal texts prepared by officials.

They have also agreed that “nothing is agreed” until progress has been reached in all areas – which has been a key demand of the EU.

An “initial phase” of face-to-face talks will run until Sunday, with subsequent negotiations planned in both Brussels and London.

These later talks could either take place in person or be held via video link if Covid restrictions apply, if both sides agree.

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