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Time is running out for Brexit deal, EU tells Britain

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European Union diplomats warned Britain on Monday (16 November) that time was fast running out for a Brexit deal, and that it may already be too late to ratify one, as negotiators in Brussels began a last-ditch attempt to avoid a tumultuous exit at the end of December, write Gabriela Baczynska and Elizabeth Piper.

Almost five years since the Brexit referendum campaign began, Britain and the EU have still not worked out how nearly $1 billion in trade per year will operate once Britain leaves a status quo transition arrangement on 31 December. Britain, which left the EU in January, called on the EU to show “more realism” if there was to be more progress in coming days.

Ireland, the EU nation most exposed to Brexit, said there were just days, or possibly weeks, left to find a way to unlock trade talks, while a senior EU official said there may no longer be time to put any trade deal agreed into force. “It’s getting terribly late and may be too late already,” said the senior EU official, as talks between the bloc’s negotiator Michel Barnier and his British counterpart, David Frost, resumed in Brussels.

“They haven’t quite reached where they had hoped to be,” a second source, an EU diplomat, said. Britain said there had been some progress and that the two sides had common draft treaty texts, though significant elements were yet to be agreed. A “no deal” finale to the Brexit crisis would shock financial markets and disrupt delicate supply chains that stretch across Europe and beyond - just as the economic hit from the coronavirus pandemic worsens.

Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said it could take another two weeks for an agreement to be struck, taking the talks close to the 31 December hard deadline. “We are more likely to get a deal than not, purely because the consequences of not getting a deal are so significant and so costly for the UK and Ireland as it happens, and for some other EU countries,” Coveney told an online conference. There has so far been little movement on the most contentious areas - so-called “level playing field” fair competition rules and fisheries.

In London, meanwhile, Prime Minister Boris Johnson was self-isolating in a flat in his Downing Street residence after he had contact with a British lawmaker who later tested positive for COVID-19. His most powerful adviser, arch-Brexiteer Dominic Cummings, was ejected on Friday (13 November) after a battle between rival factions in the government. “We may not succeed,” Frost said on Sunday (15 NOvember). “We are working to get a deal, but the only one that’s possible is one that is compatible with our sovereignty and takes back control of our laws, our trade, and our waters.”

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Brexit: ‘Frankly, I cannot tell you if there will be a deal’ von der Leyen 

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Addressing the European Parliament this morning (25 November) European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said that she couldn’t say whether the EU would be able to reach a deal with the UK on its future relationship before the end of the year. She said the EU side was willing to be creative, but that it would not put the integrity of the Single Market in question. 

While there has been genuine progress on a number of important questions, such as law enforcement, judicial co-operation, social security coordination and transport, von der Leyen said that the three ‘crucial’ topics of level playing field, governance and fisheries remained to be resolved.

The EU is seeking robust mechanisms to ensure that competition with the UK remains free and fair over time. This is not something that the EU can skate over, given its proximity and the scale of existing trade ties and integration in EU supply chains. The UK has to date been ambiguous about how it would deviate from European norms that it played no small role in shaping, but the logic of Brexit supporters is that the UK could become more competitive through deregulation; a point of view that obviously makes some EU partners a little ill at ease.

‘Trust is good, but law is better’

The need for clear legal commitments and remedies has become starker following the UK’s decision to introduce an Internal Market Bill that includes provisions that would allow it to deviate from parts of the Ireland/Northern Ireland Protocol. Von der Leyen said that strong governance was essential in "the light of recent experience".

Fisheries

On fisheries, von der Leyen said that no-one questioned the UK’s sovereignty of its own waters, but held that the EU needed "predictability and guarantees for fishermen and fisherwomen who have been sailing in these waters for decades, if not centuries".

Von der Leyen thanked the parliament for their support and understanding in the difficulties such a late agreement presented to them. A final deal will be several hundred pages long and need to be legally scrubbed and translators; this is unlikely to be ready by the next plenary session of the European Parliament in mid-December. It is generally acknowledged that if a deal is to be arrived at a plenary on 28 December will be needed. Von der Leyen said: “We will walk those last miles together.”

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UK will remain global leader for asset management after Brexit: Sunak

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British Finance Minister Rishi Sunak (pictured) said on Tuesday (24 November) that he was determined that the United Kingdom would remain a global leader for asset management after Brexit, writes William Schomberg.

“We’re beginning a new relationship with the EU. And as we do so, we are determined that the UK will remain a global leader for asset management,” Sunak said in comments to a conference organized by The Investment Association, an industry group.

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Irish PM hopeful of Brexit trade deal outline by end of week

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Irish Prime Minister Micheal Martin said on Monday (23 November) that he hoped that the outline of a Brexit free trade deal will have emerged by the end of the week and urged unprepared smaller Irish exporters to get ready for change, whether there is a deal or no deal. The European Union’s Brexit negotiator said on Monday that big differences persisted but that both sides were pushing hard for a deal, as talks resumed, writes Padraic Halpin.

Moves will have to be made on some of the key issues such as fisheries and the so-called “level playing field”, Martin said. But he added that he had got a sense of progress from both negotiating teams, and that a presentation last week from EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen was probably one of the more hopeful to date.

“I would be hopeful that, by the end of this week, that we could see the outlines of a deal, but that remains to be seen. It is down to political will, both in the United Kingdom and I’m clear the political will is there from the European Union,” Martin told reporters.

On a visit to Dublin port, Ireland’s largest freight and passenger port, Martin said that, while 94% of Irish importers from the UK and 97% of exporters had completed the necessary customs paperwork to continue trading with Britain, he was worried by the take-up among some small and medium-sized firms.

“The one concern I’d have is maybe there is a complacency among some SMEs out there that everything will be OK and ‘Sure if they get a deal, won’t it be OK?’. It will be different, and you have to get that into your heads,” Martin said. “The world will change and it will not be as seamless as it once was. The bottom line is you need to get ready. It is not too late, people just need to knuckle down now.”

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