Brexit: The EU and UK are locked in last-minute power play

Michel Barnier Image copyright EPA

In a city where masks are now compulsory in public places, it can sometimes be hard to understand exactly what someone’s saying to you. Or to work out exactly what they mean. If you can’t read their lips, how can you begin to read their mind?

Despite rising cases of Covid-19 seeing Belgium being added to the UK’s quarantine list, the teams who are striving to bridge considerable differences and deliver a trade deal between the EU and the UK were still able to meet face-to-face this week – albeit from a safe distance.

Unlike those on the squares and boulevards outside, the negotiators wore no masks, but it seems this advantage did little to reveal any new understanding of where the other side was coming from.

I’m told the latest round of discussions were courteous and friendly – with a warmth between the two chief negotiators facing each other – even when each was delivering an uncomfortable message.

As ever, the EU and UK are hardly seeing eye-to-eye though.

Michel Barnier cut a despondent figure (“disappointed, concerned and surprised” to use his words) at his conference once he’d finished his working breakfast.

What he evidently found harder to digest was what he said was the British side’s ongoing disregard for the terms of the political declaration both sides agreed last year.

It’s been a while since the refrain beloved of Theresa May has been invoked, but Mr Barnier wanted to tell us that he understood “Brexit means Brexit”.

What he couldn’t fathom though was the UK’s insistence on cherry-picking access to the single market without wanting to play by EU rules.

He cited the British demand for wide-ranging access for UK lorries travelling across Europe but the refusal to agree to EU rules on, for example, drivers’ rest times.


David Frost, the man who reports directly to the prime minister, issued his own public reaction to the latest talks through a press statement, rather than press conference.

His frustration was fuelled by what he sees as the EU’s insistence that the UK accept current EU rules on state aid and fisheries, before any wider deal can be committed to paper.

These areas remain the two defining stumbling blocks in the negotiations.

The way coronavirus has battered European economies has given a new perspective on how governments may want to support struggling business, especially for the Johnson government which says it’s committed to a “levelling-up” agenda to boost poorer parts of the UK.

But it’s the so-called ‘level playing field’

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