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With just three weeks until the end of the transition period, and as UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen prepare to meet in Brussels, the EU-UK Negotiations on the future trading relationship seem to be entering what is widely seen as the final, critical phase.
Both sides have been in a period of intense negotiations since the UK’s provisional deadline of the European Council meeting on 15 October, and throughout November which was seen as the deadline for the EU due to the ratification process. These talks, however, have failed to resolve the key barriers to a deal which have remained throughout, namely: fishing rights and access to UK waters; the level playing field and competition law; governance and resolution of any disputes; and the sensitivities around the implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Tensions on this last point had been particularly heightened by the UK’s Internal Market Bill which contained certain provisions which the UK government claimed ensured the proper functioning of the UK internal market, but had also admitted broke aspects of the Withdrawal Agreement, an international treaty.
On 7 November, the UK did make some concessions in this area, releasing a statement on the Withdrawal Agreement and Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol that the UK government would remove or deactivate the offending clauses of the Internal Market Bill (clauses 44, 45 and 47) if an agreement on the implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol was reached. This agreement was confirmed in a statement on 8 December, and the clauses will be removed.
With the political leaders of the two sides meeting to try and reach a breakthrough, an outcome seems to be expected this week; European leaders are due to meet for a two day summit on Thursday 10 December, the new key date in the Brexit timeline. Yet with so much uncertainty, leaders have been unwilling to set another date as a deadline – the only date that seems certain is the 31 December 2020, when the transition period will end at 11pm UK time.
Following the European Council in mid-October, after which Prime Minister Boris Johnson advised businesses to prepare for no deal, the UK and EU negotiating teams have spent the past few weeks in intensive negotiations, trying to find a way forward on those contentious issues of fisheries, governance and level playing field.
In statements on Wednesday 4 November the chief negotiators Michel Barnier and David Frost both indicated that these sticking points continue to cause difficulty in reaching an agreement. Lord Frost, the UK’s chief negotiator, did indicate that progress had been made via a statement on Twitter, while EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier’s statement suggested that significant divergences remained, with the EU prepared for all outcomes. Barnier has also asked the European Parliament for more flexibility on ratification, although this has been met with frustration, particularly from the Bernd Lange, chair of the International Trade Committee who raised concerns that there was already insufficient time for proper scrutiny of an agreement.
The next week or so will therefore be crucial; the EU has set mid-November as the deadline for an agreement to be reached, in order to give sufficient time for any deal to be ratified by the end of the year. Talks will continue over the next few days in a bid to reach a deal in time.
Background to the negotiations
On 9 July the European Commission adopted a Communication to help national authorities, businesses and citizens prepare for the changes that will arise at the end of the transition period. Changes will occur to cross-border exchanges between the EU and the UK as of 1 January 2021– irrespective of whether an agreement on a future partnership has been concluded or not. You can find a summary here.
The NFU's EU exit and international trade team has summarised the UK and the EU's draft working text for a comprehensive free trade agreement between the UK and the EU. Here you'll find a summary of both versions of the agreement.
- You might also be interested in reading our comparison of the two agreements, together with NFU commentary on what the various aspects mean for the UK agri-food sector.
- Negotiating rounds will take place face to face when possible.
- To accompany and complement the negotiating round, more restricted meetings will take place to ensure progress in the negotiations.
- The parties have agreed the following calendar, which may be modified as necessary:
29 June - 3 July
Restricted round in the format of a meeting of the Chief Negotiators and of specialised sessions (Brussels). Agenda here. You can find out more about the sticking points in the restricted round of negotiations here.
w/c 6 July
Meetings of the Chief Negotiators / their teams / specialised sessions (London)
w/c 13 July
Meetings of the Chief Negotiators / their teams / specialised sessions (Brussels)
20 - 24 July
Round 6 (London)
w/c 27 July
Meetings of the Chief Negotiators / their teams / specialised sessions (London)
17 - 21 August
Round 7 (Brussels)
w/c 24 August and
w/c 31 August
Meetings of the Chief Negotiators / their teams / specialised sessions as necessary (London and Brussels)
7 - 11 September
Round 8 (London)
w/c 14 September and
w/c 21 September
Meetings of the Chief Negotiators / their teams / specialised sessions as necessary (Brussels and London)
28 September - 2 October
Round 9 (Brussels)
Click on the buttons inside the tabbed menu to read the NFU's insight into each previous round of negotiations. The most recent tab will open by default.
EU – UK Joint Committee overseeing implementation of withdrawal agreement
Michael Gove is the UK representative on a Joint Committee to oversee the implementation of the Withdrawal Agreement and Maroš Šefcovic, European Commission Vice President represents the EU. The first meeting of the committee took place on 30 March, also by teleconference. Click here to read the statement by the European Commission following the meeting.
In the meeting, both sides gave an update on progress to implement the Withdrawal Agreement. The UK reiterated a commitment to protecting the Good Friday Agreement in all aspects and upholding obligations under the Northern Ireland Protocol. The UK also emphasised a commitment to EU citizens in the UK and ensuring that UK nationals in the EU have their rights protected.
The second meeting of the EU-UK Joint Committee took place on Friday 12 June 2020 by teleconference. The Committee was updated on implementation of the Withdrawal Agreement more generally, on which both sides have made good progress. The Committee took one decision - to amend ten minor errors and omissions in the Withdrawal Agreement, related to citizens’ rights and financial provisions, required for legal certainty. The UK also took the opportunity provided by this second meeting to emphasise the UK’s decision not to extend the transition period. Click here to read the statement by the European Commission following the meeting.
The European Commission leads the negotiations on behalf of the European Union. The Task Force for Relations with the United Kingdom (UKTF) coordinates all issues related to the UK’s withdrawal and its future relationship with the EU. Michel Barnier is the Head of this Task Force.
For the UK, the negotiations are led by the UK’s Chief Negotiator who is the Head of the Task Force Europe (TFE). David Frost has been appointed as Chief EU negotiator.
Both sides will also have relevant figures accompanying the negotiations from across government departments in the UK and the directorate general in the EU.
The agenda for Round 1 of negotiations can be found here.
The agenda for Round 2 negotiations can be found here.
The agenda for Round 3 of negotiations can be found here.
- Download BAB's full summary of the third round of negotiations here.
- Read the NFU's summary of the negotiations here.
- Read the EU's press statement following the third round of negotiations here
Very little progress was made between the third and the fourth rounds of negotiations with the EU accusing the UK of “backtracking” on a number of its commitments under the political declaration.
This was the last round of the first “set” of negotiations ahead of a high-level meeting at the end of June during which the status of negotiations so far will be assessed.
Despite poor progress so far, Michel Barnier stated that it was his belief is that if future, face-to-face, negotiations take place with “mutual respect” there is still time to reach an agreement by the end of October - necessary to allow time for any deal to be ratified ahead of the 31 December 2020.
With the fourth round of negotiations between the UK and the EU just concluded, David Frost, UK chief negotiator, echoed Barnier’s comment on the limited progress achieved at the end of this week. This round was indeed shorter and more restricted in scope with no relevant discussions on SPS or Rules of Origin issues taking place.
However, the UK chief negotiator said that the UK remains “committed to a successful outcome”. The common feeling is that a deal can still be achieved in the tight timescale ahead. In terms of next steps, David Frost acknowledged that negotiators need to intensify and accelerate work. Discussion with the EU Commission on how to do that are ongoing. Another round towards the end of June is on the cards.
Finally, he reiterated that an acceptable deal for the UK will have to accommodate the UK Government’s position on the level playing field and fisheries. The EU exit and international trade team has published a detailed analysis on the UK’s and EU’s proposals for a future agreement. You can read more here.
Restricted Round w/c 29 June
Following the early finish of the “restricted round” of talks which took place this week between the EU and the UK, the EU’s Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier released a statement saying that serious divergences remain.
Mr Barnier reiterated that the EU’s position remains the same and that no economic partnership will be established without guarantees for a level playing field, a solution for fisheries and an overarching institutional framework and effective dispute settlement mechanism. The EU is also insisting on parallel progress on all areas of discussion.
The UK’s Chief Negotiator David Frost said in a statement that holding talks in person for the first time since March has added an extra depth and flexibility to discussions, but that talks this week have underlined significant differences on important issues.
Both sides say they remain committed to reaching an agreement. The talks will continue in London in the week commencing 6 July.
Specialised Session w/c 6 July
Following four days of informal talks in London, EU Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier has said that significant divergences remain between the EU and the UK on a post-Brexit trade deal. Mr Barnier said he would continue to work with “patience, respect and determination” but that there would be inevitable changes from 1 January 2021 regardless of the outcome of talks.
A spokesman for the Prime Minister said that a dinner on Wednesday had provided an opportunity for Mr Barnier and UK Chief Negotiator David Frost to meet in a more informal way and that the two had been keen to discuss the key issues.
Following the conclusion of the 6th round of negotiations on the 23 July, Michel Barnier gave a press conference in which he said that while there had been good discussions in several areas and some progress on goods and services, overall divergences remain and progress must be made in all areas in parallel.
On the two most significant issues, state aid and the level playing field, Mr Barnier said that the UK did not show a willingness to break the deadlock. He expressed concern that the EU team still has no sight of the UK’s future subsidy control system. He said that on the level playing field, the UK refuses to commit to maintaining high standards in a significant way. Mr Barnier also highlighted that even a less ambitious agreement on goods and services would not lead to the EU dropping its demands for a level playing field.
Answering questions from journalists, Mr Barnier stressed that there are less than five months before the end of the transition period, and that any deal would need to be agreed by October to allow time for translation and approval. He confirmed that unless the UK moves on its position in the most contentious areas, there is a real risk that no deal will be reached.
From his side, David Frost, the UK Chief Negotiator, expressed disappointment that the basis for a deal had not been agreed during this fifth round. This was the PM’s aim as stated at the High Level Meeting with the European Commission back on 15 June. According to Mr Frost, the UK has used every occasion to highlight that any future agreement with the EU must recognise the UK as an “economically and politically independent country”. “The EU’s proposals so far do not do so, and therefore substantial areas of disagreement remain.”
However, Mr Frost conceded that the some progress had been registered in this round thanks to the EU’s softening of its position on the role of the Court of Justice. Similarly, he admitted that the UK had “heard the EU’s concerns about a complex Switzerland-style set of agreements and we are ready to consider simpler structures, provided satisfactory terms can be found for dispute settlement and governance.”
Moreover, it seems that the two sides had fruitful discussions on trade in goods and services and participation in EU programmes. However, Mr Frost admitted that “considerable gaps remain in the most difficult areas, the so-called level playing field and on fisheries.” From the UK’s perspective, the EU’s demands are not based on existing precedents and undermine the UK’s ability to legislate in those areas.
Overall, despite the substantial lack of progress on the sticking points of level playing field and fisheries, David Frost said he is confident that an agreement can still be reached in September but added that the UK continues its preparations for all possible scenarios (i.e. no deal) for the end of the transition period on 31 December 2020.
Informal talks between the UK and the EU will continue next week in a restricted format in London and the next full round of negotiations will take place in Brussels from 17 to 21 August.
With no surprises, the 7th round of negotiations between the UK and the EU has just concluded with little progress.
The talks focussed on the sticking points of level playing field and fisheries policy without achieving a breakthrough. David Frost, UK Chief Negotiator blames the EU’s negotiating strategy of parallelism, where the block wants to advance on all the key chapters at the same time. Hence, with diverging positions on fisheries and state aid, the rest of the negotiating chapters are left in a limbo for the time being.
He reiterated that “we are seeking a relationship which ensures we regain sovereign control of our own laws, borders, and waters, and centres upon a trading relationship based on an FTA like those the EU has concluded with a range of other international partners, together with practical arrangements for cooperation in areas such as aviation, scientific programmes, and law enforcement.”
Both sides will remain in close contact over the next two weeks before the next round in London on the week of 7th September.
Following the end of the latest round of negotiations, Michel Barnier gave a press conference in which he expressed disappointment and concern at the lack of progress on fundamental issues. While this round did see movement on important technical issues such as energy cooperation and UK participation in EU programmes, overall it felt more like going backwards than forwards, said Mr Barnier. He said that progress on technical issues will be important in the final text if the fundamentals can be agreed.
Mr Barnier reiterated that a deal must be agreed by October in order to allow time for ratification by EU27 national parliaments.
Fisheries and road transport were issues under significant scrutiny this week, but overall no progress has been made on any of the major sticking points. Mr Barnier stressed that even if the UK wants to settle for a light touch agreement, “the need for level playing field is not going to go away”.
Round 8 of the UK-EU negotiations concluded in London on 11 September 2020. As expected, there wasn’t a breakthrough in the negotiations with both parties remaining entrenched in their positions on the most sensitive issues (i.e. state aid and fisheries).
David Frost, UK chief negotiator, released a statement after the talks that sounded slightly more upbeat than his EU counterpart, Michel Barnier.
Mr Frost commented that:
“These were useful exchanges. However, a number of challenging areas remain and the divergences on some are still significant. We remain committed to working hard to reach agreement by the middle of October, as the Prime Minister set out earlier this week. We have agreed to meet again, as planned, in Brussels next week to continue discussions.”
The statement made by EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier referred to a lack of engagement from the UK to engage on fundamental EU principles and interests. Mr Barnier lamented the UK’s refusal to include guarantees of fair competition and on non-regression from environmental, labour, climate and social standards.
As well as the now familiar comments around level playing field, judicial cooperation and fisheries, there is also reference in the statement to uncertainties around specific technical details including the post-transition sanitary and phyto-sanitary regime. The EU requires such detail for its assessment of the UK as a third country. The EU is continuing preparedness ready for all scenarios, including for the event of the UK leaving the transition period without a deal.
In the next two weeks the UK and the EU will hold informal meetings before Round 9 of the negotiations take place in the week of 28 September. The ultimate deadline to finalise the UK-EU agreement is the EU Council meeting 15-16 October as UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson made clear in a speech earlier this week.
Mr Johnson said:
"The EU have been very clear about the timetable. I am too. There needs to be an agreement with our European friends by the time of the European Council on 15 October if it’s going to be in force by the end of the year. So there is no sense in thinking about timelines that go beyond that point. If we can’t agree by then, then I do not see that there will be a free trade agreement between us, and we should both accept that and move on.”
Finally, separate to the negotiation round, U.K. Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove and European Commission Vice President Maroš Šefcovic met for an emergency meeting of the Withdrawal Agreement Joint Committee in London on 10 September on the back of the UK Government publication of the Internal Market Bill.
In a government transcript of the meeting, it was reported that:
'Vice President Šefcovic detailed the European Union’s concerns, and requested that the UK withdraw the UK Internal Market Bill. The UK Government made clear that the legislative timetable for the Bill would continue as planned'.
There are concerns around the measures set out in the UK Internal Market Bill which appear to create tension between obligations under international law and domestic law:
'The UK Government underlined its determination to continue to engage in Joint Committee discussions constructively, with the aim of finding a satisfactory outcome for both sides'.
The 9th round of negotiations ended on 2 October without any fanfare, as once again no major progress was made. In a statement published by the European Commission, it was noted that discussions were held in a constructive way with points of convergence and positive new developments linked to judicial matters.
However, there was a lack of progress made on topics including personal data protection, climate change commitments and carbon pricing.Lord Frost, the UK’s Chief Negotiator, also released a statement which acknowledged the ongoing sticking points around level playing field and subsidy policy, as well as fisheries. In regard to both of these areas he particularly pointed towards a lack of movement from the EU and expressed concern about meeting the 15 October deadline set by Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
Despite this, he did indicate that elsewhere “the outlines of an agreement are visible” and that discussions took place in ‘good spirit’. This facilitated progression in the talks on law enforcement.
Following the talks, Prime Minister Boris Johnson and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen spoke together on the phone on Saturday. The call is seen to signal intensification as we enter the final stages of talks. Mr Johnson and Mrs von der Leyen have agreed to speak on a regular basis, while Chief Negotiators Michel Barnier and Lord Frost have been instructed to work intensively to bridge those gaps.
EU leaders will take stock of progress at a summit on 15-16 October.
The negotiating mandate defines the scope and terms of a future partnership between the EU and the UK. These documents cover all areas of interest for the negotiations.
- Click here to read the EU negotiating mandate
- Click here to read the UK negotiating mandate
- Click here to read our NFU expert insight into the UK’s approach of the negotiations
There are 11 negotiating groups which will discuss their topics in parallel during the negotiating rounds. These are:
- Trade in Goods
- Trade in Services and Investment and other issues
- Level Playing Field for open and fair competition
- Energy and Civil Nuclear Cooperation
- Mobility and Social Security Coordination
- Law enforcement and judicial cooperation in criminal matters
- Thematic Cooperation
- Participation in Union Programmes
- Horizontal arrangements and governance
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