The final scheduled round of negotiations for the future trading relationship between the UK and EU commences today (29 September) amid renewed hope that a deal can be reached.
This week’s talks have long been touted as pivotal, with both sides previously saying an agreement needs to be secured before the EU leaders’ summit in two weeks’ time.
The summit has been positioned as a deadline for the negotiations because European parliaments need to have sufficient time to ratify the final deal before the transition period ends on 31 December 2020.
Final legal text
According to the Times, the EU is now willing to discuss the legal text of the agreement ahead of resolutions being found on the remaining sticking points in the talks – fisheries and state-aid.
Negotiations have also been extended this week to include longer sessions on the outstanding areas of disagreement – including 12 hours discussing fishing and 14 for the much-disputed ‘level playing field’ rules for subsidies.
Into the tunnel
The closing stages of EU trade negotiations – where the legal details of deals are hammered out – are often described as ‘the tunnel’.
Negotiators hope that a sharper focus will help to finally resolve longstanding disputes in the talks.
However, commentators are sceptical as to whether moving into ‘the tunnel’ increases the chances of a successful conclusion, warning that an agreement can still collapse during the intensive final phase.
“People get very excited about the idea of a tunnel,” one EU official told Politico. “I think people are getting too excited about it, too obsessed with it.”
Digging in over Internal Market Bill
Progress in the negotiations could yet be undermined by the continuing argument over the UK’s proposed Internal Market Bill – legislation which would override parts of the Withdrawal Agreement relating to the Northern Ireland Protocol.
The EU commissioner in charge of implementing the Withdrawal Agreement, Maros Sefcovic, told the FT: “We maintain that the bill, if adopted in its current form, would constitute an extremely serious violation of the protocol, as an essential part of the withdrawal agreement, and of international law.”
Michael Gove, who is leading the UK’s preparations for post-transition trade with the EU, said the provisions of the bill are a “safety net” for protecting the integrity of the UK market and the interests of people in the region.