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Brexit talks stuck over core issue
2020-09-14 

As sovereignty matter leads negotiations to deadlock, free trade deal seems unattainable

European Union and British flags are seen in this April 9, 2019 file photo. [Photo/Agencies]

One of the main reasons the British government wanted to leave the European Union was over the question of sovereignty, claiming it wanted complete freedom to set its own laws and make its own decisions.

It is this core issue that appears to have steered negotiations down a dead end, with progress toward a free trade deal now intangible and the EU officials conceding that strict terms set by the United Kingdom mean it may be unattainable.

The UK wants to be able to support British companies with state subsidies and it wants control of British fishing waters.

But for its part, the EU does not want to give preferential access to the single market in a trade deal if its industries are undermined by British actions.

The UK left the EU on Jan 31 under the terms of a negotiated divorce deal, bringing to an end 47 years of British membership.

Major changes likely

It means there will be major changes to trading arrangements when the transition period ends on Dec 31 and the UK leaves the EU's single market and customs union.

The focus is now on the future EU-UK relationship and failure to strike a deal would see the two sides revert to basic international trading rules.

Despite the massive disruption caused by the novel coronavirus pandemic and a stalemate in the talks, an extension to the transition period has been ruled out.

Ahead of the 8th round of talks that began in London on Tuesday, the UK government controversially set a mid-October deadline for finally resolving the issues at the center of the Brexit disagreement.

According to the Financial Times, if no deal is reached within the deadline, the UK government said it would introduce legislation to override the Withdrawal Agreement, which is the international deal struck less than a year ago that ensures there will be no hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

The news prompted EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen to warn Prime Minister Boris Johnson's government not to break international law.

In a post on social media, von der Leyen said: "I trust the British government to implement the Withdrawal Agreement, an obligation under international law & prerequisite for any future partnership. Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland is essential to protect peace and stability on the island & integrity of the single market."

Brandon Lewis, UK minister and also the Northern Ireland secretary, caused dismay in Parliament on Tuesday when he told MPs that the UK Internal Market Bill, which is the new legislation to amend the deal with the EU, would likely "break international law". He conceded it would go against the treaty in a "specific and limited way".

Ex-PM issues warning

This brought a stern response from former prime minister Theresa May who warned that reneging on the agreement could damage "trust" in the UK over future trade deals with other states.

The government's most senior lawyer, Jonathan Jones, permanent secretary to the Government Legal Department, announced he was resigning because of the bill. Sky News reported that Jones believed the legislation breached the government's obligations under international law.

The UK government's intentions with the Withdrawal Agreement were even questioned by senior United States politicians. Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the US House of Representatives, insisted there was "absolutely no chance" of a US-UK trade deal if the Northern Ireland peace process was jeopardized.

She said in a statement: "Whatever form it takes, Brexit cannot be allowed to imperil the Good Friday Agreement, including the stability brought by the invisible and frictionless border between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland."

The Good Friday Agreement is a pair of agreements signed on April 10, 1998 that ended most of the violence of the Troubles, a political conflict in Northern Ireland that had been ongoing since the 1960s.

EU sources told The Times the issue had created a "huge dent in trust, which was already very low".The Irish Taoiseach, or prime minister, Micheal Martin told broadcaster RTE that "trust has been eroded".

Member of European Parliament Nathalie Loiseau told the BBC she was "flabbergasted" that the UK was prepared to break international law.

"The ink of the Withdrawal Agreement is still wet," the French MEP said. "We are negotiating the future relationship and we hear that the British government seems not to believe any more in a rules-based order. This is of course a huge concern."

Johnson defended the new bill in Parliament on Wednesday, saying it would "ensure the integrity of the UK internal market" and hand power to Scotland and Wales, while protecting the Northern Ireland peace process.

As trade talks continued in London on Thursday, BBC News reported that the EU had threatened the UK with legal action if it did not ditch the bill "by the end of the month".

In a statement following emergency talks between the two sides, the EU said the bill "seriously damaged trust between the EU and the UK".

Jean-Claude Juncker, the former president of the European Commission who played a key role in the prior Brexit divorce negotiations, said a free trade agreement is now unlikely. Speaking at an event on Tuesday, he said: "No deal is the most possible and probable, the only outcome of the negotiations."

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