State of play: EU/UK talks on ice

There are mounting calls, given the scale of the COVID-19 crisis, for the UK to trigger an extension to its talks with the EU on their future relationship – and to allow up to a further year before concluding a deal, if at all possible given the ever-present threat of No Deal (with the Johnson Government refusing to take part in collective European efforts to combat the virus).The talks are, commentators say, effectively on ice for now and the foreseeable future.

Here are the conclusions of the latest paper by Senior European Experts, a group of former British EU senior officials, on the current state of play:

“Comparing the UK and EU positions shows elements of agreement but also significant differences, partly as a result of ideological differences.  The EU’s approach is more legalistic, but that reflects the Treaties, the EU’s rule of law culture and the fact that this approach has been very successful for the EU in the past.  The Government of Boris Johnson clearly wants a more distant relationship with the EU than that envisaged by his predecessor (and indeed the one to which it agreed in the Political Declaration only last year) but it also wants a less structured, more flexible one.

The level playing field argument has been seen by many commentators as demonstrating a fundamental divide between the parties.  The reality is more complex.  The UK would like the flexibility to move away from EU rules in some areas, not least because that might make it easier to negotiate trade deals with other countries but it is unlikely to abandon the sorts of employment and environmental protection rules that have developed during EU membership because that would be politically unpopular at home.  The more difficult divide is that between the EU’s desire for legally binding (and therefore justiciable) commitments to be written into the agreement and the UK’s objection to such an approach, which it sees as impinging on its sovereignty.  Nevertheless, it is possible to see ways of bridging this divide if the will to reach agreement is sufficiently strong.

The ratification process in UK and EU is an issue not referred to in their negotiating documents but is of some importance.  It is unlikely to be a problem in the UK given the size of Government’s majority but it could prove problematic in the EU if the resulting treaty is a “mixed agreement” (i.e. requires national ratification as well as EU ratification), as may be the case with any provisions beyond trade.  In some EU Member States “national ratification” in fact also means agreement at regional level.”

And here’s a (partial) final Twitter thread from the highly respected Peter Foster, Europe Editor, the Telegraph now moving on to the FT:

Update: the biggest political group in the European Parliament, the EPOP, has called for an extension

The German-Scottish MEP David McAlister said: “The coronavirus pandemic complicates the already very ambitious schedule.

“The EU has always been open to extending the transition period – the ball is now clearly in the British court.”

The European Parliament will get a say in ratifying any future trade deal.

When asked if an extension was possible, the prime minister’s spokesman said: “The transition period ends on December 31 2020. This is enshrined in UK law.” (via the BBC)

Meanwhile, talks by Zoom on the withdrawal agreement took place this week: