LONDON — The U.K. and the European Union blamed each other today in their increasingly acrimonious post-Brexit trade discussions that could just be weeks from collapse.
While the U.K. urged the EU to show “more realism” in the discussions, the 27-nation bloc noted that it was a “world power.”
The latest round of discussions kicked off in London amid an air of pessimism because of concerns that the British government is set to violate international law by reneging on commitments made before the country’s departure from the bloc on Jan. 31.
The news that the head of the British government’s legal department has quit — reportedly over plans to bypass commitments made with regard to the Irish border — and an intervention from Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s predecessor only added to the sense the talks are going nowhere.
Though the U.K. left the bloc on Jan. 31, it is in a transition period that effectively sees it abide by EU rules until the end of this year.
David Frost, the British government’s chief negotiator, said the two sides “can no longer afford to go over well-trodden ground” in the deadlocked talks and that the EU needs to show “more realism” about the U.K.’s status as an independent country.
European Council President Charles Michel retorted that the bloc is in no mood to budge on its demands.
“We are sending a message, not only to our citizens but also to the rest of the world — Europe is a world power and we are ready to defend our interests,” he said in a speech Tuesday at the Brussels Economic Forum.
The trade discussions have made very little progress over the summer, with the two sides seemingly wide apart on several issues, notably on business regulations, the extent to which the U.K. can support certain industries and over the EU fishing fleet’s access to British waters.
The EU has been particularly insistent on level playing field issues in order to ensure that British-based businesses don’t have an unfair advantage as a result of laxer social, environmental or subsidy rules in the U.K.
“If foreign companies want access to our market, we expect them to be on the same footing as our European companies,” Michel said.
Relations have got further strained this week following reports that Britain’s Conservative government was attempting to unilaterally ride roughshod over its divorce agreement. EU officials said any attempt to override the international treaty could jeopardize peace in Northern Ireland as well as undermine the chances of any trade deal. Under the terms of Britain’s departure, the government has committed itself to ensuring an open border between Northern Ireland, which is part of the U.K., and EU member Ireland.
The British government said the publication of planned legislation on Wednesday is intended to tie up some “loose ends” where there was a need for “legal certainty.” It said the Internal Market Bill will ensure goods from Northern Ireland, which is part of the EU, will continue to have unfettered access to the U.K. market, while making clear EU state aid rules, which will continue to apply in Northern Ireland, won’t apply in the rest of the U.K.
Though the government insists it’s not planning to tear up its commitments, it appears that concerns over its intentions lay behind the resignation Tuesday of Jonathan Jones, one of the top officials in its legal department.
A spokesman for the Attorney General’s office confirmed the resignation, but wouldn’t comment on the reason behind it. The Financial Times reported that Jones quit because of a dispute over suggestions the government would challenge parts of the withdrawal agreement.
And Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, raised concerns that any attempt to bypass commitments could damage the U.K.’s international standing.
“The U.K. government signed the withdrawal agreement with the Northern Ireland protocol. This Parliament voted that withdrawal agreement into U.K. legislation,” she said in the House of Commons. “The government is now changing the operation of that agreement. Given that, how can the government reassure future international partners that the U.K. can be trusted to abide by the legal obligations of the agreements it signs?”
Johnson has said Britain could walk away from the talks within weeks and insists that a no-deal exit would be a “good outcome for the U.K.” He said in a statement that any agreement must be sealed by an EU summit scheduled for Oct. 15.
British businesses are worried about a collapse in the talks that could see tariffs and other impediments slapped on trade with the EU at the start of next year. Most economists think that the costs of a “no-deal” outcome would fall disproportionately on the U.K.