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Britain, EU in post-Brexit trade talks stalemate

British and EU negotiators have until the end of the year to agree on a new basis for ties
British and EU negotiators have until the end of the year to agree on a new basis for ties DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS AFP/File
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Brussels (AFP)

Europe and Britain ended their latest round of post-Brexit trade talks in a state of deadlock on Friday, with both sides urging the other to fundamentally change its strategy.

EU negotiator Michel Barnier said he was "disappointed" by Britain's lack of ambition -- but also accused London of seeking the benefits of single market access without its responsibilities.

In London, at the other end of what had been a week-long series of videoconferences, Barnier's UK counterpart David Frost agreed that not a lot of progress had been made.

Barnier said "no progress has been possible on the more difficult subjects," despite Britain now having provided suggested texts in almost most areas of disagreement.

Britain left the European Union on January 31 and the sides have until the end of the year to agree a new basis for ties, barring an extension that British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has ruled out.

There now remains only one round of talks before an end of June deadline set in the Withdrawal Agreement as a cutoff on whether talks were worth pursuing.

"It is hard to understand why the EU insists on an ideological approach which makes it more difficult to reach a mutually beneficial agreement," Frost said after the talks.

"We very much need a change in EU approach for the next round beginning on June 1," he added.

The talks have stumbled on the same issues since they launched in March, just ahead of the coronavirus pandemic that has paralysed public life and devastated the European and UK economies.

"We're treading water.. There really is no progress and tempers picked up a bit more this session," said one European source close to discussions.

The EU insists any deal must include UK assurances on maintaining EU standards on health, safety, state aid and the environment -- commonly known as keeping the "level playing field".

But Britain refuses to accept that this should form part of an overarching legal agreement, insistent on its new found freedom after the 40 years of being tied to EU rules.

"As soon as the EU recognises that we will not conclude an agreement on that basis we will be able to make progress," Frost said.

Barnier countered: "The United Kingdom has not engaged in a real discussion on the level-playing field, whatever it says."

Britain insists it wants nothing more in its trade deal than the EU offers other partners such as Canada or Japan -- while Barnier says it is in fact asking for much more.

Britain also rejects the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice and the European Convention of Human Rights -- a demand it says is unnecessary and belittling.

The Europeans argue that Britain's geographic proximity and close business connections to the continent, make more safeguards necessary than those in a traditional trade deal.

- 'Useful discussions' -

But Frost and Barnier both said there were "useful discussions" on another bone of contention -- fisheries -- even if both sides remain fundamentally far apart.

Spurred on by France, Brussels is taking a tough stance on fishing rights, with demands that European vessels keep much the same access to British waters despite Brexit.

Frost said the EU focus on full access to British waters was "incompatible with our future status as an independent coastal state".

Without a deal, Britain and the EU devolve ties into WTO rules, creating barriers to trade that would rock both economies.

The EU believes that the pain will be felt much more dearly by Britain, but the devastating effects of the coronavirus has offered London hope that Europe will compromise to avoid further chaos.

Relations have become more testy recently, with the EU threatening to sue London over laws banning deportees from applying for re-entry and making it harder for EU citizens to claim welfare.

Senior UK minister Michael Gove, meanwhile, on Thursday accused EU member states of denying rights to British expats living in Europe in violation of the divorce deal.

And Europe says Britain would violate the same deal if it failed to set up custom checks for goods travelling across the Irish Sea from Britain to its province of Northern Ireland.

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