EU's Barnier criticises Britain for refusing to engage in Brexit talks

BRUSSELS (BLOOMBERG) – Michel Barnier, the European Union’s chief Brexit negotiator, criticised Britain for failing to “engage substantially” in negotiations over their future relationship.

After the first week of talks since the coronavirus forced the two sides to abandon face-to-face meetings, Mr Barnier said Britain hadn’t even wanted to discuss key issues like access to fishing waters and measures to prevent unfair competition.

The two sides are racing to secure a deal by the end of 2020, after Prime Minister Boris Johnson ruled out extending the post-Brexit transition period, during which the country continues the same benefits and obligations it had as a member. With officials struggling to do little more than identify the areas of disagreement, the chances of delay or failure are increasing by the day.

“The UK did not wish to commit seriously on a number of fundamental points,” Mr Barnier told a press briefing in Brussels on Friday (April 24).

“The UK cannot refuse to extend the transition and at the same time slow down the discussion on important areas.”

Gamblers at online betting exchange Smarkets Ltd now put the implied probability of the talks failing at 85 per cent, and the likelihood of a delay at 69 per cent. Failure to strike an accord by the year-end would see the return of tariffs and quotas, and the imposition of scores of bureaucratic barriers for business.

Mr Barnier said he had wanted to make “tangible progress” over the past few days. “This has only been very partially met this week,” he said.

The four areas where the two sides are far apart are the same as they were in March: the level playing field, the governance of the future partnership, judicial cooperation and access to fishing waters.

“We need to make progress on all issues in parallel,” Mr Barnier said.

Despite the slow pace of negotiations, a major crossroads is fast coming into view with both sides mandated under the previous Brexit deal to take stock in June, the deadline for either side to request an extension.

The EU wants to wrap up the contentious fishing part of the agreement by that date too. Brussels has made any trade deal conditional on the two sides reaching an accord on fish. Britain argues the current system is unfair because it allows EU boats to catch more in British waters than domestic vessels – but European countries are keen to keep the status quo.

Under the surface, EU concerns about Britain’s commitment to the obligations it signed up to under the Withdrawal Agreement – in particular the promise to avoid a hard border in Ireland – are also hampering efforts to strike an agreement on the future relationship.

“A new partnership with the UK. can only be built on trust,” Mr Barnier said. “So agreed commitments need to be applied.”

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