“Weekly Briefing: Attention turns to the structure of next phase Brexit talks”
By Anthony Egan, courtesy of Open Europe
The UK’s departure from the EU on 31 January is now certain. Later today, the House of Commons is expected to approve the Withdrawal Agreement Bill, before it proceeds through the final stages of the legislative process next week. Despite the tabling of several amendments to the Bill, none have passed, demonstrating the grasp Prime Minister Boris Johnson has over Parliament after last month’s election returned him to office with a majority of 80. This change has been acknowledged in the EU, with one German journalist writing today, “The UK now has a Prime Minister who wields more power than any Downing Street resident has had for a long time. The Commission president, meanwhile, will have a much harder time of things than her predecessor, [owing to divergent interests between the EU27].”
Both the UK and the EU will now be strategising for the next phase of Brexit negotiations. Yesterday, European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, gave a speech at the LSE in which she said that whilst a comprehensive UK-EU partnership would be “impossible” to negotiate before the end of the transition, the EU is willing to “sign up to a deal based on “zero tariffs, zero quotas,” but conditional on “zero dumping [of exports that undercut EU standards]” on the Single Market. Later in the day, von der Leyen met with Johnson in Downing Street. A No. 10 statement said that during the meeting, Johnson “was clear that the UK would not extend the implementation period beyond December 31, 2020; and that any future partnership must not involve any kind of alignment or ECJ jurisdiction… [and that] the UK would also maintain control of UK fishing waters and our immigration system.” It seems movement from either corner, or both, will be necessary to reach an agreement.
In the meantime, attention has turned to the structure of the negotiations on the UK-EU future relationship. The Government has said that the “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed” approach that dominated negotiations over the Withdrawal Agreement is not one it wishes to pursue this time around. Resisting this approach is seen by the Government as necessary to prevent the EU forcing concessions from the UK in areas where the UK has more leverage, such as fishing. Instead, the Government’s preference is for a sector-by-sector approach, which would enable the UK to secure sectoral deals over the course of the negotiations, preventing the EU from forcing the UK into concessions at the eleventh hour.
The UK’s desired approach seems to have gained some traction. Given the narrow negotiating window, reports suggest the Commission sees this sector-by-sector approach – which would cover a more limited number of areas, such as trade and aviation – as a means of lowering the risk of having no agreement at all. The logic being that by securing deals in certain areas, even if the negotiations are not fully concluded by the end of the transition, there will at least be some agreements in place; even if this falls short of the EU’s ambitions for a more comprehensive deal. Meanwhile, some have raised concerns regarding whether such a sectoral approach would be classified as a “mixed” agreement, requiring ratification by national parliaments across the EU. This constraint is likely to slow the ratification of a deal significantly, as it did with the EU-Canada trade agreement.
It is uncertain what the ultimate structure of talks will be, but this question is likely to remain in greater focus over the next few weeks, as both sides strive to steer the process towards their interests.
Anthony Egan joined Open Europe in 2018. He holds an MA in Legal and Political Theory and a BSc in Economics, both from UCL. His research focuses on the economics of European affairs, demographic change and immigration. Anthony has experience in the media industry, having worked for a business and finance media outlet prior to joining Open Europe.