BRUSSELS (AP) — With the European Union’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier in quarantine, trade talks with the United Kingdom continued by videoconference this week, though the optimism expressed last week seemed to have faded.
Barnier stressed on Monday that negotiators were running out of time to make a Jan. 1 deadline and that “fundamental divergences still remain.”
The talks were shifted to a videoconference last week when an EU official tested positive for the coronavirus, forcing Barnier into a quarantine until at least Thursday. Both sides have indicated that to reach an agreement on key issues the negotiators need to meet in person.
On Friday, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen issued one of the most upbeat assessments of the state of post-Brexit trade negotiations in several weeks, saying the EU had seen “in the last days better progress, more movement on important files.”
But on Monday, EU Commission spokesman Daniel Ferrie said that “while some progress has been made in drafting legal texts, significant fundamental divergences remain in the three key areas” that negotiations have centered on – the fishing industry, how to check compliance with the deal and the standards the U.K. must meet to export into the EU.
The U.K. left the EU on Jan. 31 but remains in its trade relations with the EU until the end of this year. Both sides hope to get a trade deal in time to protect hundreds of thousands of jobs that could be affected if the trade agreements lapse with no deal on future ties.
Any deal brokered by Barnier and his British counterpart, David Frost, would need to be approved by the individual EU countries and the European Parliament. The legislature is even considering meeting around Christmas – when it is usually enjoying a long recess – to make any deadline.
The bloc accuses Britain of wanting to retain access to the EU’s lucrative markets, much like any EU country, without agreeing to follow all its rules. The EU fears Britain will slash social and environmental standards, and pump state money into U.K. industries, becoming a low-regulation economic rival on the bloc’s doorstep.
Britain says the EU is making unreasonable demands and is failing to treat it as an independent, sovereign state, especially when it comes to the control of its fishing waters.
If the talks resume in person from Thursday, they would be held in London.