Blog: Major breakthrough needed to avert no-deal Brexit, says Irish minister – The Guardian

Brexit negotiations on a trade deal resume in a crucial week, as it emerged talks on the issue of EU access to British fishing waters have not progressed since the summer.

As the two sides re-engaged in the troubled talks, with less than seven weeks to go before the end of the transition period, Ireland’s foreign minister, Simon Coveney, said the negotiations were “not in a good place” on fishing rights.

“We really are in the last week to 10 days of this, if there is not a major breakthrough over the next week to 10 days then I think we really are in trouble and the focus will shift to preparing for a no-trade deal and all the disruption that that brings,” he said.

“I think the British government understand only too well what’s required for a deal this week, the real question is whether the political appetite is there to do it. I think we will [get a deal], that’s been my prediction for a while, but I won’t be shocked if it all falls apart.”

The outstanding issues remain the level of access to UK waters provided to EU fishing fleets, fair competition rules for business – including rules on domestic subsidies – and the mechanism in the final treaty for resolving future disputes.

The UK’s chief negotiator, David Frost, tweeted on Sunday that there had been “some progress in a positive direction in recent days”. But he insisted that his negotiating position on the most contentious issues would not soften in light of the departure of Boris Johnson’s chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, the former campaign director for Vote Leave.

It is understood that common ground is being found on the shape of a deal for how both sides will regulate domestic subsidies. But there is no agreement on a mechanism on maintaining similar baseline environmental, labour and social standards in the years to come. The UK insists that it will not tie itself to the Brussels rulebook.

The internal market bill aims to enforce compatible rules and regulations regarding trade in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Some rules, for example around food safety or air quality,  which were formerly set by EU agreements, will now be controlled by the devolved administrations or Westminster. The internal market bill insists that devolved administrations  have to accept goods and services from all the nations of the UK – even if their standards differ locally.

This, says the government, is in part to ensure international traders have access to the UK as a whole, confident that standards and rules are consistent.

The Scottish government has criticised it as a Westminster “power grab”, and the Welsh government has expressed fears it will lead to a race to the bottom. If one of the countries that makes up the UK lowers their standards, over the importation of chlorinated chicken, for example, the other three nations will have to accept chlorinated chicken too.

It has become even more controversial because one of its main aims is to empower ministers to pass regulations even if they are contrary to the withdrawal agreement reached with the EU under the Northern Ireland protocol.

The text does not disguise its intention, stating that powers contained in the bill “have effect notwithstanding any relevant international or domestic law with which they may be incompatible or inconsistent”.

The bill passed its first hurdle in parliament by 77 votes, despite a rebellion by some Tory MPs. On 9 November two clauses were removed after defeat for the government in the House of Lords. The government stated it intended to reintroduce them.

Martin Belam and Owen Bowcott

Coveney particularly emphasised the danger posed by the issue of fishing rights to blow up the negotiations despite its comparatively small economic value.

“It’s a lot more emotive, and a lot more political quite frankly,” he said. “What the British government has promised to their fishing industry, versus Michel Barnier’s negotiating mandate from the EU is a very, very wide gap.”

He continued: “It’s not good … the negotiations are not in a good place when it comes to fishing. There hasn’t really been any success in closing the gap between the positions of either side and until we find a way of doing that there isn’t going to be an agreement, so we’re in the same place in fishing, as we were in mid-summer.

“Neither side really has budged from their position, there’s been minor concessions discussed on both sides but really it hasn’t moved anywhere.”

The EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, had hoped to provide a positive progress report to the bloc’s 27 heads of state at a videoconference call on Thursday but the timeline appears to be slipping.

Senior MEPs have insisted that the European parliament needs at least three weeks to scrutinise any deal before a vote on ratification. A vote is currently pencilled in for 16 December but sources said an extraordinary parliamentary session could be announced for 28 December.

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