Brexit latest: 'Good progress' made on trade talks after stormy few weeks

Brexit | | MIC Customs Solutions |

EU leaders have become more optimistic about the prospect of a post-Brexit trade deal with the UK, as talks resume after briefly collapsing earlier in October.

The UK and the EU may be inching closer to a deal on post-Brexit trade after discussions intensified in recent days, although it has come after a turbulent few weeks in which talks seemingly ended without agreement, before negotiators from both sides came back to the table.

While the two sides remain some way apart on key issues such as fisheries, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen stated "good progress" has been made after seven days of intensive negotiations in London, which is a notably more optimistic tone than was being struck earlier in the month.

Trade talks off, then on again

Just a couple of weeks ago, the UK looked destined to end the post-Brexit transition period on December 31st without a deal after the two sides missed a deadline imposed by the UK of October 15th. While talks initially continued beyond this cut-off point, British prime minister Boris Johnson soon declared the negotiations over.

On October 16th, the official spokesman for Number 10 told the press: "From our point of view, the trade negotiations are finished. The EU has de facto put an end to them and it will only be worth talking to each other if there is a fundamental change in the EU's position."

In response, the EU stated that while it was keen to continue talks for another two to three weeks, it would not do so at any cost. EU Council president Charles Michel added it was up to the UK to make the "necessary moves" and that the EU would not change its mandate on areas such as the level playing field, fisheries and governance.

However, several commentators suggested the war of words was more brinkmanship than a serious threat to walk away, with both sides keen to shift the political blame for any failure of the talks. 

And so it proved when EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier traveled to London to meet with his UK counterpart Lord David Frost, where the pair agreed on a set of principles for intensifying talks. Mr Barnier, meanwhile, emphasized to the European Parliament that both sides would need to make compromises to secure an agreement.

Negotiations move to Brussels

After a week of negotiations in London, the two teams have now moved to Brussels in order to try and strike a last-minute deal. But with just eight weeks left until the end of the transition period, there is recognition on both sides that time is short.

Mr Michel has suggested the state of the talks will be reviewed again in the first week of November with a view to starting the ratification process for an agreement around the middle of the month. This has been backed by Ireland's foreign minister Simon Coveney, who claimed a trade deal is now likely "within two weeks", though he warned it will be far from easy.

This is because the main sticking points are still to be resolved. Speaking after a meeting with Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau, Ms von der Leyen said: "[There are] two critical issues: level playing field and the fisheries, [where] we would like to see more progress.

"We are in very close contact on an hourly basis because the negotiations now have been intensified … There are 11 other fields of files that have to be negotiated."

She added that another focus for the negotiators will be to develop a dispute mechanism that would allow either side to suspend parts of any deal in the event of a clear breach of obligations.

This is likely to refer to the UK's controversial Internal Market Bill, which ministers have admitted would give the government the power to break international law by unilaterally ignoring parts of the Withdrawal Agreement.

Speaking on Monday October 26th, Downing Street's spokesman emphasized that there is still a long way to go to overcome the "significant gaps that remain between our positions in the most difficult areas".

However, there was some good news for the UK in its post-Brexit trade deals, as Mr Trudeau gave his backing to a future free trade agreement with the UK based on the existing Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement between the EU and Canada.

He added: "There are significant complexities that the UK is grappling with in terms of negotiating the post Brexit agreement with the EU. I can highlight that it's fairly straightforward with Canada and we are certainly very optimistic in the ability to see things roll over smoothly."