British negotiator gives EU two-week deadline to drop ‘ideological’ stance

David Frost says there has been ‘very little progress’ in talks with Michel Barnier as clock ticks on

Britain’s chief negotiator in the talks over the future relationship with the EU has warned Michel Barnier that he must drop his “ideological approach” within the next fortnight, as the latest round of talks ended in stalemate.

The comments from David Frost came as both sides offered a gloomy prognosis for the negotiations on trade, security and fisheries, with little sign of the teams finding common ground.

A UK source described the talks as tetchy at times, with just six weeks to go before a legally binding deadline by which a decision must be made on extending the transition period beyond 2020.

Frost said there had been “very little progress” in the latest discussions between the two sides, adding that he found it “hard to understand why the EU insists on an ideological approach which makes it more difficult to reach a mutually beneficial agreement”.

The British government has previously said it could be forced to refocus its attention away from the negotiations and towards preparing the country for a no-deal outcome if significant progress has not been made by 1 July.

In his statement at the end of the latest round of video-conference negotiations, Frost said: “We very much need a change in EU approach for the next round beginning on 1 June.

“In order to facilitate those discussions, we intend to make public all the UK draft legal texts during next week so that the EU’s member states and interested observers can see our approach in detail.

“The UK will continue to work hard to find an agreement, for as long as there is a constructive process in being, and continues to believe that this is possible.”

Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator since July 2016, told reporters in a virtual press conference that the round of talks had been “very disappointing”, adding that he was not optimistic about the outcome.

A key flash point remains the British insistence that it will not tie itself to common so-called level playing conditions on environmental, social and labour standards.

Barnier accused the UK of trying to pick and choose parts of the EU single market, dismissing the government’s claims that it is seeking a typical free-trade agreement.

“Every time we meet they say they would be happy to have a Canada-style agreement, but at the same time … they ask for far more from us than is available under the Canadian model,” Barnier said, citing the UK’s desire for “virtually full freedom of movement” for short visits, maintenance of “existing arrangements” on electricity interconnection, as well as “broad and widespread” recognition of professional qualifications to enable British lawyers, accountants and auditors to work in the EU.

“We are not going to bargain away our European values to the benefit of the British economy,” Barnier said. “Economic and trading fair play is not for sale. It is not ‘a nice to have’, it is ‘a must have’.”

The former French minister also rejected Michael Gove’s recent suggestion, which sources said had been repeated during the latest round of talks, that the UK could accept some tariffs as “the price” of avoiding European standards.

“Even if we are to get rid of 98%, 99% of tariffs and not 100% that we are proposing … we will require the same strong guarantees of a level playing field.” He also warned that such a detailed and “very sensitive negotiation” would take years and an extension of the transition period.

Despite the downbeat tone, Barnier said the two sides were “not at the point of failure” and hinted compromise might be possible on the tortuous issue of fishing rights over the 100 species straddling British and EU waters.

While the EU wants to maintain the status quo, the UK wants a big increase in its fishing catches from British waters. “We should be able to move away from these two respective very maximalist positions in order to work on all sorts of parameters between these two maximalist positions,” Barnier said, adding that the discussion was “perhaps the only positive outcome from this week”.

But a senior UK source said the level playing field demands were a red line and there could be no “halfway house” on the issue as it would result in EU laws being “imposed” on the UK.

There is now a working assumption on the UK side that it will take a summit between Boris Johnson and the commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, in mid-June to break the impasse.

In a further sign of the more aggressive approach of the UK under Johnson’s premiership, British negotiators also accused the European commission of obstructing progress on services, where they said discussions had been moving faster than in other areas.

Barnier denied accusations of such tactics as “spin”, reiterating that the EU wanted all areas of the talks to progress at the same time. “Parallelism is a condition for progress,” he said. “It is not a tactic.”

The UK Institute of Directors said it was “worrying to hear how far apart things are, given how little road there is left”, with its head of Europe and trade policy, Allie Renison, warning of the “much bigger consequences for business on both sides of the channel” if talks fail.

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