Brexit: Trade deal still possible with EU, says UK minister

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Brexit: Barnier on UK approach to EU trade talks

A trade deal with the EU based on the UK's "very reasonable" demands is still possible, cabinet minister Matt Hancock has said.

The health secretary was speaking after the two sides admitted little progress had been made in the latest round.

He said he "very much" hoped a no-deal outcome to the talks could be avoided if the two sides worked together.

He was speaking after EU negotiator Michel Barnier accused the UK of "backtracking" on its commitments.

The French official said differences remain in four key areas - fisheries, competition rules, governance and police cooperation.

Guidelines for these issues were included in the political declaration, agreed by the UK and EU last year, which set out objectives for a future relationship.

Speaking in Brussels, Mr Barnier said: "My responsibility is to speak to truth and, to tell the truth, this week there have been no significant areas of progress."

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
Matt Hancock said he hoped 'no deal' could be avoided

He added: "In all areas, the UK continues to backtrack under commitments undertaken in the political declaration, including on fisheries. We cannot and will not accept this backtracking on the political declaration."

This week's discussions - held online - were seen as the last chance to make progress ahead of a summit between Prime Minister Boris Johnson and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, expected to take place later this month.

The UK has until the end of June to ask for the "transition period" - during which the country stays in the single market and customs union - to be extended into next year. But Mr Johnson has ruled this out.

Mr Barnier said: "We have always been open to the possibility of an extension of one or two years - as is possible under the exit agreement. And our door remains open."

Asked about the prospect of a no-deal exit from EU rules at the UK's daily coronavirus briefing, Matt Hancock said: "I very much hope that we avoid that because our position is very reasonable

"It's that any agreement we reach must reflect the fact that the UK is an independent sovereign state.

"And we're working very hard and will accelerate the work to make progress in talks by the end of the year so that we can put into place the vision that has already been agreed between the UK and the EU which is based within the political declaration."

"Plus ça change," you could say.

Round four of EU/UK trade negotiations after Brexit comes to an end. Cue yet another dismally downbeat assessment from the EU and the UK's chief negotiators.

But I don't belong to the growing "No deal is becoming the most likely outcome" school of thought.

On the contrary, both sides insisting loudly that their position will not waver (on all issues linked to national sovereignty for the UK; on all issues linked to the single market for the EU) is also a way of trying to reassure audiences back home that their interests will be protected, while privately considering what compromises they're prepared to make.

Sift carefully through the rhetoric of EU negotiator Michel Barnier.

Among his words of disappointment at the lack of progress, plus accusations that the UK is constantly "backtracking" on commitments, you'll find clear indications of wiggle-room in Brussels: a possible softening of EU demands on state aid rules and fishing quotas and an admission from Mr Barnier, that, if a deal were close this autumn, there would almost certainly be a "dense" period of last-minute negotiations.

No compromise clues from the UK yet, though.

It's not too late. But concessions will be needed from both sides for even a very narrow deal to be agreed by the UK-imposed deadline of the end of this year.

A senior UK negotiating official told the BBC their side was prepared to accept some tariffs if they were needed to reach a deal with the EU.

The UK was "committed" to sticking to the political declaration, but the document had been designed to set out only the "parameters" of discussions, they added, and was not a treaty.

UK chief negotiator David Frost said: "We continue to discuss the full range of issues, including the most difficult ones. Progress remains limited but our talks have been positive in tone.

"We are now at an important moment for these talks. We are close to reaching the limits of what we can achieve through the format of remote formal rounds."

UK officials told the BBC they would prefer to move to face-to-face talks but acknowledged that might not be possible just yet.

The UK left the EU on 31 January. The transition period lasts until 31 December and keeps the UK bound to most EU rules.

'Mutual benefit'

The sides currently have until then to reach a free trade deal, needed if they want to do business without tariffs, quotas or other barriers in future.

Northern Ireland's first minister Arlene Foster said she was "concerned" about the current state of the talks.

"For both our sakes I hope that we get to a situation where we get a deal because that's what we need in Northern Ireland," she told Nick Robinson's Political Thinking podcast.

"We need to make sure that both sides understand that it is to both sides' benefit and that's something that I think the European Union often didn't get in the negotiations from 2016 onwards."

Businesses - hit by the coronavirus pandemic - have raised concerns over a possible "cliff-edge" break to the UK's remaining access to the EU single market at the end of the year with no replacement deal.

The CBI business group called progress in the talks "worryingly slow", adding that this was causing "deep concern to firms when resilience has rarely been more fragile".