A frustrated European Union and piqued Britain both exhorted each other on Tuesday to compromise to avoid a fast-approaching disruptive finale to the five-year Brexit drama that would add to economic pain from the coronavirus crisis.
The EU’s Brexit negotiator, however, also said on Wednesday a deal was still possible before the end of the year, when Britain’s current trading terms expire and when commerce free of tariffs and quotas can no longer be guaranteed.
“Time is very short and we stand ready to negotiate 24/7, on all subjects, on legal texts. The UK has a bit of a decision to make and it’s their free and sovereign choice,” European Council President Charles Michel told the European Parliament.
“Their sovereign answer will determine the level of access to our internal market, this is just common sense.”
Michel said the 27 EU members were equally ready for an abrupt split in trading ties at the end of the year without a new partnership agreement to avoid tariffs or quotas from 2021.
“Brexit means Brexit, as (former British prime minister) Theresa May used to say. But Brexit also means making choices about our future relationship,” said Michel, listing the three sticking points in the trade negotiations: fishing rights, the settlement of disputes and economic fair play.
“We don’t need words, we need guarantees,” he said of the so-called level playing field guarantees for fair competition. “Do our British friends want to regulate state aid and uphold high medical standards? If so, why not commit to them.”
On ways to solve any future trade disputes, Michel pressed for agreeing on a “binding, independent arbitration” that would be able to redress any market distortions swiftly.
Michel said London’s draft new Internal Market Bill - which, if adopted, would undermine Birtain’s earlier divorce deal with the EU - only solidified the bloc’s belief that it needed tight policing of any new deal with the United Kingdom.
“Brexit was not our decision and it was not our fishermen’s decision,” said Michel, adding that losing access to the UK’s waters would inflict “extraordinary damage” on EU industry.
The EU is therefore seeking continued mutual access to UK fishing waters and sharing out catch quotas, just as London wants continued access to the bloc’s market of 450 million consumers for its companies, he said.
“But the UK wants access to the single market while at the same time being able to diverge from our standards and regulations when it suits them. You can’t have your cake and eat it too,” Michel told EU lawmakers.
With some €900 billion of annual trade at stake in the troubled talks, the EU’s Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier told the same plenary session an agreement was “within reach” if both sides worked constructively.
“Time is of the essence... Along with our British counterparts, we must find solutions to the most difficult areas,” Barnier said, in comments that pushed sterling higher on foreign exchange markets.