LONDON — The Brexit drama’s second season is following a familiar script.
As the fifth round of talks came to a close Thursday, both sides admitted they were still a long way apart — and each blamed the other.
Negotiators will now miss the July target to agree an outline of a deal, as discussed by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, European Council President Charles Michel and European Parliament President David Sassoli in June.
Some progress is discernible. The U.K. has “heard the EU’s concerns about a complex Switzerland-style set of agreements and we are ready to consider simpler structures,” Britain’s chief negotiator David Frost said in a statement.
The EU wants the deal to be a single overarching agreement where a dispute in one area could lead to repercussions in another, but Britain wants a series of mini-agreements with their own governance arrangements.
Frost said the U.K. is willing to compromise “provided satisfactory terms can be found for dispute settlement and governance,” something regarded by the British as a significant climbdown.
Elsewhere, however, the talks appear to remain in a stalemate.
“It is unfortunately clear that we will not reach in July the ‘early understanding on the principles underlying any agreement’ that was set as an aim at the high-level meeting on June 15,” Frost said.
But he added that a deal could still be done in September — leaving enough time for ratification on both sides and preparations for the U.K. to leave the EU institutions on December 31. He noted though that both sides must “face the possibility” that a deal will not be reached.
EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier was even more pessimistic.
“We have continued to engage sincerely and constructively in line with the mandate given to us by the member states, with the support of the European Parliament. However, over the past few weeks the U.K. has not shown the same level of engagement and readiness to find solutions, respecting the EU fundamental principles and interests,” he said at a press conference after talks had concluded.
“There are risks of no deal. As long as we have a blockage on the U.K. side … then there is objectively a no-deal risk.”
Both sides highlighted fisheries and the so-called level playing field — which the EU sees a crucial to ensure fair competition between businesses on both sides and the U.K. regards as an unfair requirement to bind the U.K. to EU rules, despite it being a sovereign country — as two key points of disagreement.
“We have always been clear that our principles in these areas are not simple negotiating positions but expressions of the reality that we will be a fully independent country at the end of the transition period,” Frost said.
Meanwhile, Barnier told a virtual press conference the two sides are “still far away” from an agreement, adding: “Time for answers is quickly running out.”
“On fisheries, the U.K. is effectively asking for a nearly total exclusion of EU fishing vessels from U.K. waters. That is simply unacceptable,” he said. The U.K. disputes this assessment, saying it simply wants to control the terms of access.
On level playing field rules, Barnier insisted: “There must be robust guarantees for level playing field, including on state aid and standards to ensure open and fair competition among our businesses and also over time. This is a core interest for all 27 member states. And in my view, also for the U.K.
“The U.K. wants to regain its regulatory autonomy. OK, we respect that,” he added. “But can the U.K. use this new regulatory autonomy to distort competition with us? We have to answer this question as we commit to a new economic partnership.”
Informal discussions continue in London next week and the next formal negotiating round starts on August 17, although the two sides are expected to remain in contact through the start of August and further negotiations are penciled in for September. Any deal would likely need to be concluded by October so that there is time for both sides to ratify it.
Barnier told journalists he would be available to work even while taking a few days’ holiday. “Every moment counts and every day, every week is useful to help us to reach an agreement.”