The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier on Thursday warned that major differences remain between Britain and Europe after a first round of trade talks ended in Brussels.
Barnier was speaking to reporters after four days of talks that launched months of intense closed-door negotiations involving more than 100 officials on each side.
“To be completely frank with you … there are many divergences, and they are very serious divergences, which is probably quite natural,” Barnier said.
Barnier said talks had snagged on several issues including the ability to ensure fair competition from British companies, often referred to as keeping a “level playing field”.
“The British tell us that they still have these ambitions of high standards, but they do not want to translate these commitments into a common agreement,” Barnier said.
He also expressed worry over Britain’s unwillingness to accept jurisprudence from the EU’s top court as well as the European Court on Human Rights.
Barnier said that while a deal was still possible, it would be very difficult, especially since British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has refused to extend the talks beyond the end of the year.
Until that date, Britain can trade like an EU member with no tariffs or other barriers but with no say in deciding policy.
Barnier said the December 31 deadline left an exceedingly tight timeframe few see as feasible for anything but a bare-bones accord.
– ‘Independence’ –
The negotiations began on a bad foot following weeks of chest-thumping in which the UK insisted on regaining its sovereignty after 40 years of EU membership.
“The UK spent a lot of time this week, insisting on its independence. Ladies and gentlemen, nobody, nobody contests the UK’s independence,” he said.
“And we ask the UK to respect our own independence,” he stressed, indicating that at least some of the bad blood remained.
Barnier said that the issue of fishing rights remains unresolved because Britain insisted on keeping very tight control of European boats accessing UK waters.
“The United Kingdom … wishes to negotiate reciprocal access to British waters and European waters on an annual basis,” Barnier said.
“I can say this as a former fisheries minister… it’s not practicable,” he said, despite the fact that the EU does negotiate annual rights with another northern neighbour, Norway.
“There’s a hundred species or so. What we can do with Norway on five species simply isn’t possible for 100 species.”
Both sides have planned a total of five rounds of talks before a June EU-UK summit where leaders will take stock of progress. The next negotiation session is set for March 18 in London.
Britain’s crucial financial services sector is largely off the table, with Brussels offering to allow London-based banks access to the European market on a unilateral basis.
Asked of the impact of coronavirus on the talks, Barnier said the teams were looking at the problem “in a very pragmatic way”.
“We have a timetable and for the moment, we are bringing together people who are not ill… There’s no ban on meetings,” he said.
The officials met at a Brussels conference centre and split into nine groups for negotiations on a wide range of topics.
Barnier said that whatever the outcome of the talks, the divorce would have “a lot, a lot of consequences, which we have to prepare for. It will not be business as usual.”