German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron have agreed to lessen European Union demands on the issue of the so-called “level playing field”, that determines how aligned the UK would be to the European Union’s regulations, as they made Boris Johnson a final offer on the stalled Brexit trade talks, The Times reported.
The more “conciliatory” posture adopted by EU leaders nevertheless came with the renewed warning of France purportedly being prepared to abandon talks to accept a no-deal, the outlet cites a Brussels diplomatic source as saying.
Boris Johnson and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen are heading into talks today after they waded in on Saturday to try and revive flagging negotiations. The two camps, headed by UK negotiator Lord David Frost and his EU counterpart Michel Barnier had put a week of post-Brexit trade talks on hold on 4 December, saying that "conditions for an agreement are not met".
Meanwhile Lord Frost is to head to Brussels today for 48 hours of "intensive" talks with his Brussels counterpart Michel Barnier in a last ditch bid to stop a no deal Brexit dubbed by several UK papers as the "final throw of the dice" pic.twitter.com/zk9dBGRV8e— tvnewswatch (@tvnewswatch) December 5, 2020
The UK had blamed France for a sudden hardening of Brussels’ stance, bringing in “unprecedented last-minute demands incompatible with our commitment to becoming a sovereign nation”.
The EU demands had been formulated ostensibly under pressure from French President Emmanuel Macron, who has adopted a hard line on access to UK fishing waters, insisting France would not accept any Brexit deal that “sacrifices our fishermen”.
Pivotal to hammering out a deal has been another sticking point - the so-called “level playing field” fair competition rules.
There has reportedly been disagreement within the EU over how far to pressure the UK on regulatory alignment. France, Italy, Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark and Romania are suggested as having adopted a tougher stance.
Meanwhile France has been increasingly restless over the floundering trade talks as time is fast running out ahead of the 31 December deadline for the Brexit transition period.
“We will not give in to time pressure. We will not accept an agreement at all costs on the pretext that we are getting closer to the deadline,” French European affairs minister Clément Beaune was quoted as saying by the Journal du Dimanche.
He added: “In the coming days we will have to decide. Either to continue to negotiate or go ahead with no deal. Because if this is the case, it is better to know now than at Christmas. It would be wrong to remain under the pressure of the clock.”
The current developments come as on Monday the UK Prime Minister is due to publish new legislation that is set to breach in a "specific and limited way" the terms of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement. The legislation is touted by Ministers as a way of providing a "safety net" if trade talks fall through, and ensuring the smooth flow of goods between Britain and Northern Ireland.
Brussels has been claiming the clauses in effect rip up the original international agreement less than a year old.
The Internal Market Bill will be up for consideration by MPs after the Lords removed the “offending” clauses, however, Johnson will re-insert them, while acknowledging that they can be removed should there no longer be a need for them, the Financial Times reported on Sunday, quoting a government official.
"The PM is going to have to make this call personally, he’s incredibly forceful about the need to have a safety net. But safety nets can always be taken away when they’re not needed," the official was quoted as saying.
A cabinet minister was cited as saying the Taxation (Post-Transition Period) Bill would be published after a vote on Tuesday.
Introducing the new “law-breaking” clauses ahead of a Thursday meeting of the European Council may potentially be regarded as an “aggressive” move, government sources were cited by The Times as admitting.
While France has underscored that it is prepared to veto any deal unless it was granted "large and lasting access" to fish quotas, the Minister for European Affairs Clement Beaune was quoted by Journal du Dimanche as saying:
“There are different sensitivities across the 27 EU countries. It would be naive to deny it. But the negotiating mandate is detailed and we are sticking to it. As for Chancellor Merkel, she wants a deal, but she also defends our demands – and she knows the European market well enough to guess how the German economy would suffer from a bad deal. In short, the British gamble on trying to divide the EU has failed.”
The French position reportedly enjoys a degree of support from other coastal states, such as the Netherlands and Belgium, concerned about their domestic fishing industries.
Meanwhile, Germany, Sweden, Finland, Austria, the Baltic states and central and eastern Europe are keen to avoid a destabilizing no-deal, writes the outlet.
According to cited European sources, there were hopes of a breakthrough on the fishing issue, with a prospective agreement to focus on a five to seven-year transition. “Fish discussions are closing in on a political landing zone,” an EU diplomat was quoted as acknowledging.
However, this was dismissed by a UK source: “There’s been no breakthrough on fish. Nothing new has been achieved on this.”
George Eustice, the UK environment secretary, dismissed “ludicrous” demands for a ten-year deal on British waters.
However, on the issue of a “level playing field”, efforts are being made to reach common ground by France and Germany with a slightly more conciliatory approach, claimed a diplomatic source.
The issue of aligning regulations, such as environmental and social standards, after the end of the 31 December transition period is the main sticking point, claim sources in Brussels.
“The UK is seeking more options for divergence; the EU is seeking more options to seek redress should damages occur,” an EU diplomat reportedly said.
While the British chief negotiator, David Frost, signalled that the next 24 hours would be critical to reaching any breakthrough, saying: “We’re working very hard to try to get a deal,” a diplomatic source was cited as voicing little optimism: “Expectations are low on a solution being found in the next 24 hours.”