The last few meters in the Brexit dispute


British exit from the EU. EU negotiator Barnier and his team want to reach the longed-for agreement at the weekend in London. If it fails, chaos is to be feared at the turn of the year.

Brussels / Vienna. Michel Barnier and his team of negotiators skipped the last Eurostar train from London to Brussels on Friday: a sign that the EU’s chief negotiator is trying to the last minute to reach an agreement with his British counterparts on the future trade relationship between the EU Union and the United Kingdom. “No comment,” said the commission’s chief spokesman at the daily lunchtime press conference. “Today we negotiate all day.” The EU ambassadors of the member states, whom Barnier should originally have informed about the outcome of his talks in London on Friday afternoon, also had to wait for the time being.

Waiting for what, negotiating what: The points of contention have been known for a long time. First, the EU suspects that the British – contrary to their original promise – do not want to adhere to the principle of comparable regulatory rules and are actually planning to compete unfairly with the Europeans off their coasts. Second, the Union demands rock-solid guarantees that the British will not compete unfairly with the Europeans through state aid. Third, Europeans want to give up fewer fishing rights in British waters to the British than they are demanding.

This third point has the greatest symbolic power, but especially in France it is very sensitive domestically. After Brexit, France’s fishermen would lose a large part of their fishing grounds in the North Sea because they are in British waters. President Emmanuel Macron has repeatedly threatened to veto the trade deal with London if this issue is not resolved to his satisfaction. France’s fishermen are highly unionized and could create the kind of public chaos ahead of the 2022 presidential election that Macron would love to do without. “The Member States will have to decide, as will the British side,” said Charles Michel, President of the European Council, on Friday. “You have to say yes or no, and if either side of the table says no, then we have a no-deal.”

For the British, on the other hand, the loss of continued free access to the lucrative EU internal market would have dire economic consequences. In addition, the country relies on food imports from Europe in order to feed itself. This free market access is the price for getting on a green branch with the Europeans on the three questions mentioned. If this fails, the United Kingdom will leave the Union on the night of January 1st without a successor agreement. Customs duties and import restrictions come into force. Not a good prospect, especially since, according to Finance Minister Rishi Sunak, the kingdom is already going through the worst recession in 300 years because of the Covid pandemic.

London increased the stakes

But the British government increased the stakes again. She announced that she would bring the controversial internal market law back to parliament in its original form on Monday. The law makes goods controls impossible between Northern Ireland and Great Britain and would require controls on the Irish-Northern Irish border. With this move, the UK government would not only break the EU Withdrawal Treaty, but also an important part of the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 that brought peace to Northern Ireland. This treaty provides for an open border between the two parts of Ireland.

The House of Lords had deleted the controversial passage of the internal market law in the previous month. There was also criticism of the provoked breach of contract in the conservative ruling party.

(“Die Presse”, print edition, December 5th, 2020)

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