Brexit: the three issues that still prevent an agreement between London and Brussels

The British and European flag, January 30, 2020 (TOLGA AKMEN / AFP)

The more the epilogue approaches, the more the tension is at its height. This weekend, all that the European Union counts diplomats and officials quivered with pleasure and drunkenness: the agreement was there, within reach. Then as usual, the scenario seized up. So far the United Kingdom continues to apply European rules, to participate in the EU budget and to benefit from European funds, without however sitting within the community institutions. AT From January 1, it will be the end of the transition period. Le United Kingdom will no longer be part of the single market or the customs union. We must therefore define what will be the future commercial relationship between London and Brussels.

The stake is simple: either the two parties agree just before the fateful date. But such a “happy end“looks mostly like science fiction, because it would have to go at the speed of light. The text of more than 600 pages is supposed to be read and ratified by the British parliament and the European parliament within three weeks.

Either everyone remains in their positions, and it’s a disaster film: the “no-deal”. He regularly waved like a scarecrow by British Prime Minister Boris Johson. Trade would then be subject to the rules of the World Trade Organization (WTO), with taxes galore. Not at all ideal in a context where European and world economies are weakened by the impact of the coronavirus. At this point, the two protagonists have advanced on everything, except the essential. Three files crystallize the blockages, always the same.

Fishing, the crux of the problem

It is a small economic subject but above all a big political file. No one wants to get angry with their fishermen. In France, the presidential election is two years away, so there is no question of fueling a social movement and nurturing populist movements. Until now, the French fishermen from Boulogne-sur-Mer or Lorient, the Dutch and Belgian fishermen went as much as they wanted in British waters. An area that is both immense and particularly rich in mackerel, saithe and blue whiting. They could capture up to 80% of their catch there.

No longer having access to this resource would deal a fatal blow to their business. After Brexit, they would have liked nothing to change. But the British, who are regaining their sovereignty over their gigantic fishing zone, would prefer to impose a system of fishing rights and quotas on their neighbors. They would be negotiated every year, as they already do with Norway or Iceland. This is where the showdown is played out. London proposes to wait three years before implementing its quotas? For Brussels, this is not enough. The Europeans are proposing to return to the United Kingdom part of the amount of the catches they have made in its exclusive economic zone? For the British, the amounts are not high enough.

Europeans are all the more rigid as they are extremely dependent on British waters and do not really know how to limit damage. And if British waters are closed, it is on French waters that European ships risk falling back, creating overexploitation of the resource.

Competition rules

This is the second sticking point. In order for the Europeans and the British to strike a fair free trade agreement, Brussels demands that the British competition remains “open and fair”. In other words, the UK is not pulling down fiscal, social and environmental standards to sell more on the European market or attracting investors, nor is it excessively subsidizing its businesses with public money. . Without this insurance, the UK would face additional taxes. Basically, no question of deregulating at all costs at the gates of Europe.

Arbitration of disputes

Finally, who is going to settle trade disputes? Which arbitration tribunal in case of violation of the agreement? This is the third sensitive subject, because London does not want to hear about the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU). Brussels could have to give up ballast. The Commission is now studying the possibility of not mentioning the CJEU in the future text and avoiding any reference to “Community law”.

The next deadline is this Monday evening. The two negotiators Michel Barnier and David Frost, who spent the whole last week unsuccessfully in a windowless ground floor of the British Department of Industry (the “cellar” as the British media have called it) have effect passed on to the bosses. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Commission President Ursula von der Leyen are due to meet again by phone this Monday evening.

A little music is on the rise: why not negotiate until the end of the year, or even early 2021? Provide for a transition period during which the WTO tariffs would apply, while common ground is found? But the British have always refused to negotiate beyond December 31, 2020. For now, there is no indication that they have changed their minds. You can take back some popcorn, the movie is not over.

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