Brexit trade talks are on the brink of collapse today with Boris Johnson warning that ‘contradictory’ EU divorce terms must be overhauled.
Michel Barnier is arriving in London for a make-or-break round of negotiations amid mounting gloom about the prospects of a breakthrough.
The standoff turned nasty yesterday as Brussels voiced fury at UK threats to override parts of the Withdrawal Agreement thrashed out last year. Legislation would unilaterally ‘clarify’ key parts of the settlement, including customs rules for Northern Ireland, that the EU insists should be resolved by a joint committee.
Despite Mr Barnier warning that step would end hopes for a trade deal, the PM’s chief negotiator Lord Frost increased the temperature again today, demanding ‘more realism’ from the EU that the UK was now a sovereign country.
In a message kicking off the latest round of discussions, the peer said the two sides ‘can no longer afford to go over well-trodden ground’ and progress on the key stumbling points – fishing rights and the UK obeying EU rules – was essential this week if a deal was to be done in time for the end of the transition period in January.
Meanwhile, the high stakes have been underlined by interventions from US politicians insisting there is no chance of a Transatlantic trade deal if the Good Friday Agreement is undermined.
Medical leaders have also cautioned that a combination of a chaotic change in trade arrangements and resurgent coronavirus this winter could ‘overwhelm’ the health service.
Michel Barnier (right) is arriving in London for a make-or-break round of trade negotiations with the UK’s David Frost (left) amid mounting gloom about the prospects of a breakthrough
Boris Johnson sent an ultimatum to the EU that he will ‘not back down’ yesterday, in another effort to convince the bloc he is not bluffing about reverting to basic trade arrangements
Mr Johnson sent an ultimatum to the EU that he will ‘not back down’ yesterday, in another effort to convince the bloc he is not bluffing about reverting to basic trade arrangements.
What happens next in the Brexit process?
The UK formally left the EU on January 31 this year.
However, the two sides moved seamlessly into a status quo transition period lasting until December 31.
This time was set aside to allow Brussels and Britain to hammer out the terms of their future relationship.
Trade talks started in March and the eighth round of formal negotiations is due to get underway in London tomorrow.
However, talks are at a standstill amid disagreements on fishing rights and whether the UK will sign up to Brussels’ rules and regulations.
Downing Street has said it does not want talks to drag into the autumn while the EU wants a deal done by the of October in order to give member states enough time to ratify it before the end of the transition period.
Given the time constraints and the lack of progress being made both sides now view a deal by the end of the year as unlikely.
Leaked diplomatic cables showed growing unease among European officials over the UK’s hardline stance, with suspicions that Mr Johnson is holding off on a compromise until the last minute to secure the best possible terms.
There is disquiet among some senior Conservatives over ‘dangerous’ plans to revisit the Withdrawal Agreement.
The UK government is pushing through legislation that could effectively override the divorce deal.
The laws will unilaterally resolve crucial issues in the Northern Ireland protocol – including deciding what goods require customs checks between mainland Britain and the province.
Ministers say that the changes are essential to avoid ‘confusion’ if there is no settlement by the end of the transition period in December.
However, Brussels insists that under the divorce deal those details can only be finalised by a joint committee.
The One Nation group of moderate Tory MPs, which met last night, is said to be alarmed by the strategy, according to the Times.
One of the MPs said: ‘This would clearly have some real issues in terms of our status as a country. If we breach an international agreement it will affect our ability to do deals with others. The ramifications of doing this are serious.’
But a No10 source said: ‘The protocol is contradictory in some respects – it talks about protecting the EU single market but also giving Northern Ireland unfettered access to the UK market. You can’t have both.
‘Without a trade deal, all goods passing from the mainland to Northern Ireland would be subject to tariffs, because they would be classed as being ‘at risk’ of being sold on to the EU market.
‘Even though traders could later claim back the money by proving the goods didn’t leave the UK, the administrative costs would be considerable.’
Downing Street has sought to increase pressure on the bloc in recent weeks, and it appears to have provoked a reaction, according to messages sent to EU capitals from Brussels, seen by the Guardian.
European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen warned there could be no backtracking by the UK on its previous commitments if it wanted to reach a free trade agreement
EU commission president Ursula von der Leyen delivered a thinly-veiled warning to the UK about breaking ‘international law’
No-deal could exacerbate health crisis, medical leaders warn
The health service could be overwhelmed by a no-deal Brexit, senior medical leaders have warned Boris Johnson.
In a letter to The Times, doctors’ leaders, hospital managers and mebers of the UK pharmaceutical industry said that a failure to strike a deal with the EU could jeopardise the health of patients in both Britain and Europe.
A combination of a no-deal, winter health issues and the coronavirus crisis could cause huge problems, the letter explained, with potential shortages of medicines as well as coronavirus testing capacity.
The letter was written by the Brexit Health Alliance, made up of the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges, the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry and the group representing senior NHS leaders.
Niall Dickson, co-chairman of the alliance and chief executive of the NHS Confederation, wrote: ‘Failure [to reach a deal] will result in industry, the NHS, research organisations, public health and regulators having to make significant adjustments to prepare for the end of the year.
‘Given the expectation that additional pressure on the health and social care system created by Covid-19 is likely to continue into and past the winter of 2020 (a time when the service is stretched each year) we expect the sector to continue to experience a significant burden and risk being overwhelmed.’
Mr Johnson’s apparent refusal to make compromises on major issues such as fisheries and state aid in order to gain an eleventh-hour ‘trade-off’ has been described as ‘concerning’ by EU chiefs, who say details won’t simply be ironed out over a phone call.
There are also fears from Brussels that Home Secretary Priti Patel is opening her own separate talks on internal security as she prepares to meet ministers from the EU’s five biggest states later this month.
European Commission leaders have urged diplomats not to agree to any proposals made in those discussions which could potentially affect the wider negotiations.
Speaking ahead of the latest round of talks, Lord Frost said: ‘Today, I will sit down with Michel Barnier and drive home our clear message that we must make progress this week if we are to reach an agreement in time.
‘We have now been talking for six months and can no longer afford to go over well-trodden ground.
‘We need to see more realism from the EU about our status as an independent country.’
He said the UK’s position derives from the ‘fundamentals of being a sovereign state’ and called for the EU to ‘fully recognise this reality’.
‘If they can’t do that in the very limited time, we have left then we will be trading on terms like those the EU has with Australia, and we are ramping up our preparations for the end of the year,’ Lord Frost added.
The Internal Market Bill to be tabled on Wednesday will ensure goods from Northern Ireland continue to have unfettered access to the UK market while making clear EU state aid rules, which will continue to apply in Northern Ireland, will not apply in the rest of the UK.
In addition, an amendment to the Finance Bill will give ministers the power to designate which goods going from Great Britain to Northern Ireland are considered ‘at risk’ of entering the EU single market and are therefore liable to EU tariffs.
The spat comes after Mr Johnson declared he will walk away from trade talks in five weeks unless the EU ‘rethinks’ its demands, saying that would still be a ‘good outcome’.
The PM said there was ‘no sense’ in allowing faltering trade talks to continue beyond October 15, when EU leaders are due to hold a major summit in Brussels.
Mr Johnson said there was ‘still an agreement to be had’ but he ‘cannot and will not compromise on the fundamentals of what it means to be an independent country to get it’, such as the freedom for the UK to set its own laws and fish its own waters.
Key dates in the road to Britain leaving the EU: Four years of Brexit chaos
February 20, 2016: David Cameron announces the date for the referendum on whether to leave the EU.
June 23, 2016: The UK votes to leave the EU.
July 13, 2016: Theresa May becomes PM after seeing off challenges from Boris Johnson and Michael Gove.
March 29, 2017: Mrs May formally notifies the EU that the UK is triggering the Article 50 process for leaving the bloc.
June 8, 2017: The Tories lose their majority in the snap election called by Mrs May in a bid to strengthen her hand on Brexit. Mrs May manages to stay in power propped up by the DUP.
November 2018: Mrs May finally strikes a Withdrawal Agreement with the EU, and it is approved by Cabinet – although Esther McVey and Dominic Raab resign.
December 2018: Mrs May sees off a vote of no confidence in her leadership triggered by Tory MP furious about her Brexit deal.
January 15-16, 2019: Mrs May loses first Commons vote on her Brexit deal by a massive 230 votes. But she sees off a Labour vote of no confidence in the government.
March 12, 2019: Despite tweaks following talks with the EU, Mrs May’s deal is defeated for a second time by 149 votes.
March 29, 2019: Mrs May’s deal is defeated for a third time by a margin of 58 votes.
May 24, 2019: Mrs May announces she will resign on June 7, triggering a Tory leadership contest.
July 23-24, 2019: Mr Johnson wins the Tory leadership, becomes PM and eventually strikes a new deal with the EU.
October 22, 2019: MPs approve Mr Johnson’s deal at second reading stage in a major breakthrough – but they vote down his proposed timetable and vow to try to amend the Bill later. The PM responds by pausing the legislation and demands an election.
October 29, 2019: MPs finally vote for an election, after the SNP and Lib Dems broke ranks to vote in favour, forcing the Labour leadership to agree.
December 12, 2019: The Tories win a stunning 80 majority after vowing to ‘get Brexit done’ during the campaign. Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour records its worst performance since 1935 after he sits on the fence over Brexit, saying there should be a second referendum and he wants to remain neutral.
December 20, 2019: The new-look Commons passes Mr Johnson’s Withdrawal Bill by a majority of 124.
January 9: EU Withdrawal Agreement Bill cleared its Commons stages, and was sent to the House of Lords.
January 22: The EU Withdrawal Bill completed its progress through Parliament after the Commons overturned amendments tabled by peers, and the Lords conceded defeat.
January 24: Mr Johnson signs the ratified Withdrawal Agreement in another highly symbolic step.
January 29: MEPs approve the Withdrawal Agreement by 621 to 49. Amid emotional scenes in Brussels, some link hands to sing a final chorus of Auld Lang Syne.
11pm, January 31: The UK formally leaves the EU – although stays bound to the bloc’s rules for at least another 11 months during the transition period.
March 5: The first round of trade talks between the UK and the EU conclude.
June 30: Downing Street denies the option of extending the Brexit transition period as Mr Johnson repeatedly insists it will end on December 31, with or without a trade deal.
August 21: Michel Barnier says talks have actually gone ‘backwards’ after months of negotiating deadlock as both sides concede a deal appears unlikely.