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Barnier gives gloomy assessment of negotiations with the UK

EU Reporter Correspondent

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After an intense weekend of negotiations, both in London and Brussels, the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier gave a gloomy assessment to senior European diplomats. The same sticking points remain: level playing field, governance and fisheries.

Last night (6 December), rumours emerged that progress has been made on fisheries, though a UK government source told EU Reporter that there had been no breakthrough on fish and that nothing new has been achieved in this field. 

In the meantime, the UK government has tabled the UK Internal Market Bill for debate in the House of Commons to consider the House of Lords amendments, including the removal of the clauses that break international law, the rule of law and - more specifically for the EU side - commitments made by the UK over a year ago by the Britsh government in the Withdrawal Agreement. At this moment, it is anticipated that the government will reintroduce the offending clauses.

The decision by the British government to backtrack on its agreement has eroded trust and made the EU side wary of making any agreement that does not include strong enforcement measures. The EU in this sense has retrenched and turned one of the favoured phrases of the UK side, ‘No deal is better than a bad deal’, on to their counterparts. 

The discussions of the joint committee on the implementation of the Withdrawal Agreement, run in parallel and recommence today between Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Michael Gove and European Commission Vice President Maroš Šefčovič. While these discussions are nominally independent of the agreement on the future trade relationship the ease of GB to NI and NI to GB trade will be determined by the outcome of those discussions.

To further heighten tension, the UK government is also tabling a Taxation Bill on Tuesday (8 December); it has been speculated that this bill will continue further measures that are contrary to the Withdrawal Agreement. It would seem that the UK is either indifferent to the commitments it has already made, or is hoping that the bill will act as further leverage in negotiations. 

Michel Barnier is currently briefing the European Parliament’s UK co-ordination group on developments. 

In a joint statement on Saturday (5 December), European Commission President von der Leyen and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson welcomed that progress has been achieved in many areas, but added that significant differences remain on three critical issues; both sides underlined that no agreement is feasible if these issues are not resolved. They agreed to speak again this evening (7 December).

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UK to respond to EU legal action over Northern Ireland by mid-May

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Britain has agreed with the European Union that it will respond to the bloc’s legal action over how it has introduced new trading rules for Northern Ireland by mid-May, a spokeswoman for the government said on Wednesday (14 April), writes Elizabeth Piper.

The EU launched legal action against Britain in March for unilaterally changing trading arrangements for Northern Ireland that Brussels says are in breach of the Brexit divorce deal agreed with London last year.

Britain has denied that the move undermines the part of the Brexit deal that governs trade to the British province, saying it extended the grace period for checks on goods moving to Northern Ireland to ease their passage.

“In line with precedent that typically allows two months to respond to proceedings of this kind, we have agreed with the EU that we will respond to the Letter of Formal Notice by mid-May,” the spokeswoman said.

“We’ve been clear that the measures we have taken are lawful and part of a progressive and good faith implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol.”

Since leaving the EU’s single market at the end of last year, supermarkets in Northern Ireland have seen some shortages of food, and the British government has also delayed introducing checks on parcels and pets.

The difficulties stem from the terms of Britain’s withdrawal agreement, which leaves Northern Ireland in the EU single market for goods and so requires checks on goods arriving there from other parts of the United Kingdom.

The two sides are due to meet on Thursday for talks on Northern Ireland at a meeting unlikely to reach a breakthrough but seen more as a staging post as London and Brussels try to find a way to ease differences over trade.

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UK and EU edge closer to deal on Brexit checks in Northern Ireland

EU Reporter Correspondent

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The UK is edging towards a new deal with the EU on Brexit arrangements for Northern Ireland with the potential for easing border checks on certain goods. Officials in London and Brussels have been involved in intense “technical talks” in the past two weeks over the future checks on food, plants and parcels going from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.

Downing Street’s official spokesman said the discussions had been constructive but that there were “still significant differences that need to be resolved”. The cabinet minister David Frost spoke by phone to the European commission vice-president Maroš Šefčovič on Friday.

Sources said that while progress has been made on Northern Ireland, efforts did not involve removing checks on goods but instead were being concentrated on removing the series of “rolling deadlines” from the implementation of border controls.

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One option is a new series of agreed milestones to be achieved involving agreement with business and civic society before each stage of the protocol is implemented. It would mirror public health experts’ “data not dates” advice to Boris Johnson regarding the easing of lockdown in England.Advertisementhttps://fe51aebfd36b7b7e45cc937da958003b.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html

The talks began a fortnight ago after relations with the EU reached a low point, with Brussels launching legal action against the UK for taking a unilateral decision to extend the grace period for checks on supermarket goods going from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.

A cabinet source played down the row, claiming the dispute was a result of an unfortunate “mismatch in the communications last month”. This reflects revived urgent efforts to sort out the situation and a recognition in London that a joint approach is the way forward.

This is a change in policy from February when Michael Gove demanded the protocol be delayed until 2023.

Last week the Northern Ireland secretary, Brandon Lewis, told political parties in Belfast that the protocol would not be scrapped, despite demands by the Democratic Unionist party and others, and seven consecutive nights of violence in Northern Ireland.

There is urgent political need to calm the atmosphere in Northern Ireland but there is also recognition in London, Dublin and Brussels that any deal centring on the protocol will not address loyalist protests. Brexit checks down the Irish Sea have enraged loyalist communities who see the trade border as an assault on Northern Ireland’s place in the union of the UK.

EU sources have put it to UK officials that 90% of border checks could disappear if Britain agreed to align food standards with those of the bloc.

Ireland’s Europe minister, Thomas Byrne, told the BBC the situation was “delicate” but he said it would be “excellent” if a veterinary deal could be achieved as it would solve problems both in Northern Ireland and those facing food exporters in Great Britain.

But many see such a food agreement as unlikely because entering into such as deal would represent a complete U-turn for the UK, which opposed regulatory alignment to achieve a hard Brexit.

There have been suggestions that the border checks could be significantly eased if the UK adopted an agreement along the lines of that operating for Australia and New Zealand agrifood trade. However, industry insiders say this would not address loyalist concerns as it still requires paperwork.

The agrifood sector is instead urging the EU and UK to take a pragmatic approach by extending the categories of goods deemed not at risk of crossing into the Republic of Ireland to include food.

The current talks are focusing on a new implementation programme outlined in a plan delivered by London to Brussels a fortnight ago. The EU has also requested real-time access to customs and border check data in Belfast ports.

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UK asks for more time to respond to EU Brexit legal action: RTE TV

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Britain has asked for more time to respond to legal action taken by the European Union over its unilateral decision to ease requirements of the Northern Ireland Protocol, Ireland’s RTE television reported on Wednesday (14 April), writes Conor Humphries.

“The request came in two letters from the UK’s chief Brexit minister David Frost,” RTE correspondent Tony Connelly said in a Twitter post.

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