BRUSSELS (Reuters) – The European Union told Britain on Wednesday to make up its mind on Brexit, putting the onus back on London to unlock trade talks as the bloc’s chief negotiator said an agreement was still within reach.
A frustrated European Union and piqued Britain both exhorted each other this week to compromise to avoid a disruptive finale to the five-year Brexit drama that would add to economic pain from the coronavirus crisis.
“Time is very short and we stand ready to negotiate 24/7, on all subjects, on legal texts. The UK has a bit of a decision to make and it’s their free and sovereign choice,” European Council President Charles Michel told the European Parliament.
He said Britain’s answer would determine its level of access to the EU’s internal market, adding: “This is just common sense.”
With some 900 billion euros of annual trade at stake in the talks, the EU’s Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier told the parliament an agreement was still “within reach”.
“Time is of the essence … Along with our British counterparts, we must find solutions to the most difficult areas,” Barnier said, in comments that pushed sterling higher.
Michel said the 27 EU members were equally ready for an abrupt split in trading ties at the end of the year without a new agreement to avoid tariffs or quotas.
He listed three main sticking points in the trade negotiations: guaranteeing fishing rights and economic fair play, and agreeing ways to settle future trade disputes.
“We don’t need words, we need guarantees,” he said of the so-called level playing field guarantees of fair competition. “Do our British friends want to regulate state aid and uphold high medical standards? If so, why not commit to them.”
Michel called for agreement on a “binding, independent arbitration” to redress any market distortions swiftly.
Michel said London’s draft new Internal Market Bill – which, if adopted, would undermine Britain’s earlier divorce deal with the EU – only solidified the bloc’s belief that it needed tight policing of any new deal.
A deputy head of the bloc’s executive European Commission, Maros Sefcovic, also said London must respect its divorce settlement with the EU regardless of the outcome of trade talks.
Michel said losing access to British waters would inflict “extraordinary damage” on the EU’s fishing industry and that the bloc was therefore seeking to prolong the status-quo just as London wanted to keep the EU’s market of 450 million consumers open for UK companies.
“But the UK wants access to the single market while at the same time being able to diverge from our standards and regulations when it suits them. You can’t have your cake and eat it too,” Michel said.
Britain’s current EU trading terms expire at the end of this year following Brexit last March and commerce free of tariffs and quotas can no longer be guaranteed from 2021 without a new partnership agreement.
“Our doors remain open and will remain open until the last day possible. We are ready to work day and night,” Barnier said. “But it takes two to reach a deal. We need to be ready to deal with the consequences of a possible no-deal scenario.”
Additional reporting by Kate Abnett and Franceso Guarascio, Writing by Gabriela Baczynska, Editing by Gareth Jones and Giles Elgood
Image: European Council President Charles Michel reports on last week’s European summit during a plenary session at the European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium October 21, 2020. Olivier Hoslet/Pool via REUTERS