STATE OF PLAY

The future trade agreement – 

PM Boris Johnson has warned that the EU must give ground in three key areas if there is to be a UKEU trade deal this year, urging the EU to revise its negotiating mandate in time for a high-level meeting in June or run the risk of a breakdown in talks that would mean Brexit ending in an acrimonious split.

According to the unnamed UK officials, Johnson wants the EU to back down on its requests over fisheries and on the “level playing field” provisions. Furthermore, he wants the EU to reconsider the issue of oversight of any final agreement, amid concerns in Downing Street that the EU’s desire for a single all-encompassing treaty will give the European Court of Justice a role in enforcing the agreement.

Nevertheless, the UK remains optimistic about reaching a deal before the end of the year, with Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove telling the Brexit Select Committee this week that the chances of a deal were “definitely better than two to one”. Gove also claimed that the coronavirus crisis could increase the chances of the UK and the EU striking a trade deal this year because it should “concentrate the minds of EU negotiators”.

This optimism is, however, not shared by the EU side, with a source describing the latest series of talks as “a standstill round”. He added “If we had all the time in the world, I really wouldn’t be worried about it. But we are already [almost] into May now. Ratification is going to be extremely complex at the end of the year, so we need more time. We can’t plan for the speedy ratification we were hoping for, for many reasons, and everyone is distracted.”

The implementation of the Protocol –

Meanwhile, the joint EU-UK committee, which is tasked with implementing the Northern Ireland Protocol, had its first meeting on 30 April, where UK and EU officials held discussions on customs checks and other controls that will be needed for goods entering Northern Ireland under the terms of that agreement.

In a technical note circulated to Member States and seen by Irish media outlet RTE, the EU warned that key preparations on the Northern Ireland Protocol must be under way by 1 July if the new regime on checks and controls on goods moving between the UK and Northern Ireland is to come into effect on 1 January next year, highlighting that the Protocol is now the biggest challenge facing the implementation of the Withdrawal Agreement as its requirements are both highly complex and politically sensitive.

The note follows increasing concerns in Brussels over a lack of clarity from the UK on how it intends to apply post-Brexit checks to trade with Northern Ireland, especially after the UK twice rejected a request from the EU to maintain an office in Northern Ireland to oversee those checks and controls. While these discussions are legally separate to the EU and UK’s future relationship negotiations, EU Chief Brexit Negotiator Michel Barnier and other senior EU policymakers have warned that efforts to forge a new partnership will founder unless the UK does not show a clear commitment to implementing the Protocol.

OTHER KEY DEVELOPMENTS

– A request by the UK to become an independent contracting party to the Lugano Convention – an accord between EU and EFTA Member States that determines which country’s courts have jurisdiction over cross-border civil and commercial disputes – faces a setback after the European Commission told Member States there were clear grounds to reject it, and that a quick decision was “not in the EU’s interest”. Despite formally exiting the EU on 31 January, the UK is covered by the Convention through its standstill transition agreement with Brussels. However, once the transition ends on 31 December, lawyers have warned that English court judgments risk losing their force in EU jurisdictions, a situation which could leave the UK reliant on other, more fragmented, international arrangements.

– The UK’s new Ambassador to the US, Karen Pierce, has said that the UK is ready to start trade negotiations with the US but is waiting for agreement from the Trump administration as to whether those negotiations can now be conducted virtually.