The EU’s chief negotiator with the UK government on the subject of Brexit today told the European parliament that “a deal is within reach”.
However, on closer examination, it appears from the speech given by Michel Barnier that the gulf between the two sides could be as large as it ever was.
Last week’s European Council meeting, Barnier said, “reaffirmed to our British partners and friends that the European Union wants an agreement, as we have always said. An agreement that is for the mutual benefit of each party, while respecting the autonomy and sovereignty of each party, and which reflects a balanced compromise.”
All well and good, and the very least one would expect of any agreement between two free parties.
However Barnier goes on to say, “there will not be an agreement at all costs, as President Ursula von der Leyen has said on numerous occasions. This is the position which is at the heart of my mandate, confirmed by your Parliament and by the European Council, reaffirming our constructive attitude to continue the discussion and negotiations.”
There are three main sticking points: state aid to business, the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) and fisheries policy.
The EU insists a trade agreement must be in line with the EU’s policy on limiting the possibility of governments granting public money to industry. The UK would like to reserve that decision for itself.
The EU argues that any dispute between the two parties needs to be adjudicated by the ECJ in Luxembourg. The UK will have none of it, and considers the UK courts to be competent.
Finally, the EU wants to retain the right for EU fishing boats to access British waters – a matter of great importance to the Belgian fishing industry – along the lines that issue has been organised until now. The UK may or may not grant access, but that decision will be taken by Westminster alone.
Barnier told the parliament, “We will seek the necessary compromises, on each side, to have an agreement until the last useful day. Our door will always remain open.”
Yet just two sentences earlier, he said the following: “I would like to point out that the Union’s attitude in these negotiations has not changed and will not change until the last day. We will remain calm, constructive, respectful, but also firm and determined in the defence of the principles and interests which are ours.”
The impasse came to a peak earlier this week, when the British government’s negotiator David Frost called Barnier and told him not to bother making the trip to London for what was supposed to be the last session of talks, because there was nothing currently to talk about.
But despite the apparent impossibility of reconciling the two positions, Barnier offered MEPs a message of optimism.
“I think a deal is within our reach, if we, on both sides, are ready to work constructively and in a spirit of compromise; if we move forward in the coming days, on the basis of legal texts as is our wish. And finally, above all, if we are ready in the days ahead to tackle and resolve the most difficult subjects,” he said.
“Time is limited, very limited. We must therefore find with the British, if they wish, solutions to the most difficult problems.”