UK PM to join post-Brexit talks as deadline nears

UK PM Johnson to join post-Brexit talks as key deadline nears

The three have since recovered and the sides concluded a third round of video conference talks this month. (Credit: AFP Photo)

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson will meet EU leaders in a bid to reinvigorate stalled post-Brexit negotiations ahead of a key deadline, officials said on Wednesday.

Britain officially left the European Union after nearly 50 years on January 31, but it still follows most EU rules and trades as if it were still a member of the bloc.

London and Brussels need to agree on everything from fishing rights to state aid rules and environmental standards to avoid a chaotic Brexit.

They have given themselves until the end of the year to strike an agreement, and until June 30 to approve an extension to the talks if it seems like more time is required.

Johnson's chief negotiator David Frost reaffirmed to UK lawmakers on Wednesday that Britain had no intention of asking for more time.

"The firm policy of the government is that we will not extend the transition period, and if asked, we will not agree to it," Frost told a video conference.

"I think that we will always put a lot of emphasis on economic and political freedom at the end of this year and thus avoiding ongoing significant payments into the EU budget."

Brexit dominated British politics and frustrated EU officials for years after the seismic 2016 EU membership referendum -- won against the odds by the Brexiters championed by Johnson.

But the coronavirus pandemic has put EU-UK talks on the back-burner, especially after key players Frost, Johnson and EU negotiator Michel Barnier all developed COVID-19.

The three have since recovered and the sides concluded a third round of video conference talks this month.

"We are perhaps a little bit behind where we would like to be otherwise, but only by a week or two," Frost said.

He said Johnson would join the talks before the June deadline for a summit that could determine whether Britain simply splits from the other 27 nations without a trade deal in 2021.

"The expectation on both sides is that these are done at leader level," Frost said.

"And, therefore, yes, the prime minister would attend."

The European Union is willing to offer Britain preferential trade terms if Johnson signs up to the major standards and regulations followed by the remaining 27 nations of the bloc.

Debates about this so-called level playing field are at the heart of the negotiations.

Johnson's team argues that the whole point of Brexit was to give Britain the right to set its own rules.

Analysts suggest that the global economic damage wrought by the pandemic has left the UK government feeling more confident that it can deal with the much smaller shock of leaving the EU without a deal.

"I think it's fair to say that we have a fundamental disagreement at the moment on most aspects of the level playing field," Frost said on Wednesday.

"In most of the important areas there is a big gap."

London and Brussels should theoretically first agree whether EU nations can keep their right to fish in UK waters once the transition period expires.

Brexit supporters rallied around fishing rights in 2016 and the issue has greater political importance than the size of the industry might suggest.

But Frost said little headway was being made there as well.

"I am beginning to think that we might not make it by the end of June, but we will keep trying," he said of EU fishing rights

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