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Fate of Brexit talks hangs in balance at EU summit

Dave CLARK
·4-min read

European leaders confronted the stalled post-Brexit talks Thursday, determined not to give ground as British Prime Minister Boris Johnson threatens to quit trade negotiations.

The 27 leaders arrived in Brussels expressing cautious optimism, but insisting on the need to bind Britain to fair competition rules even after it leaves the EU single market.

President Emmanuel Macron nevertheless suggested that France was open to finding a "good compromise" that would ensure access for French fishermen to UK waters.

The insistence of France and other northern fishing nations on maintaining access to British waters has been a key stumbling block in the talks so far. 

The European leaders have tried to keep Brexit off the agenda at their recent summits, trusting in EU negotiator Michel Barnier to defend their interests.

Johnson has warned that he could walk away from the negotiations unless the results of the latest two-day Brussels summit point to a breakthrough, but EU officials do not recognise his deadline.

The leaders were to tackle Brexit first, and a draft of their conclusions seen by AFP offered little to London.

An earlier version had proposed that Barnier "intensify" his discussions with UK negotiator David Frost to seek a deal that could be ratified and implemented before Britain leaves the single market on December 31.

But the latest draft seen by AFP as the leaders gathered had dropped this word and says merely that the summit urges negotiators "to continue negotiations in the coming weeks, and calls on the UK to make the necessary moves to make an agreement possible."

During a call to Johnson on the eve of the crunch talks, EU chief Ursula von der Leyen warned that there was "still a lot of work ahead of us", adding that Brussels wants a deal but "not at any price".

"The EU is united, we have a clear position, we want a good deal," von der Leyen said Thursday. 

As the summit got under way on Thursday she was forced to leave the venue and self-isolate, after a member of her office tested positive for coronavirus.

- 'Approaching the runway' - 

A Downing Street spokesman said that during the call, which also included summit host Charles Michel, Johnson had "expressed his disappointment that more progress had not been made over the past two weeks."

"The prime minister said that he looked forward to hearing the outcome of the European Council and would reflect before setting out the UK's next steps," the spokesman said.

The British side has accused Brussels of trying to force concessions by running down the clock.

European diplomats say Brussels is still hoping for a deal, but is looking for a sign from Johnson that he is serious about compromise on the EU priorities.

"We need to lower the landing gear. We're approaching the runway. Is he thinking about landing or is he still at 10,000 metres?" one asked.

Diplomats said there had been some movement from Britain, but not enough to warrant locking the negotiators into a so-called "diplomatic tunnel" to force the talks over the finish line. 

Some member states are pushing for the sides to agree on a "toolbox" of retaliatory measures that Brussels or London could take if it feels that the other side has broken its word on maintaining a level playing field in cross-Channel business.

Britain left the European Union on January 31, but Barnier and Frost have been locked in inconclusive talks on a follow-on trade arrangement. 

If no deal is reached, trade rules will revert to the bare bones of World Trade Organization regulations.

- Rules of fair competition -

Both sides insist they are ready for this -- and would prefer it to having to accept a bad deal -- but experts forecast severe economic disruption.

Europe's three main concerns are agreeing on the rules of fair competition, agreeing how these rules will be policed and securing access to UK waters for EU fishing fleets.

Britain wants to reassert sovereignty over its waters and refuse EU legal oversight over the deal -- insisting it wants a simple trade deal of the kind the EU signed with Canada.

Brussels in turn stresses that Britain's economy is far more integrated with and closer to the EU's than Canada's, and that its single market must be protected from British backsliding.

Northern fishing nations, in particular France, are holding a firm line on fishing, insisting that their boats operated in UK waters for centuries before the EU was formed and must be allowed to continue.

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