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Brexit progress registered but still not enough

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The European Union and Britain have made better progress towards a trade deal in the last few days but there is still a lot of work to do for an agreement to be in place by the end-year deadline, the bloc’s chief executive said on Friday.

Diplomats briefed earlier by the EU’s executive, which is negotiating with Britain on behalf of the 27 member states, said Brussels and London remained at odds over fishing rights, fair competition guarantees and ways to solve future disputes.

However, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen sounded a more optimistic note on the last-ditch talks at a news conference, pointing to progress on the question of ensuring a level playing field for state aid.

“After difficult weeks with very, very slow progress, now we’ve seen in the last days better progress, more movement on important files. This is good,” she said.

The chief Brexit negotiators suspended direct talks on Thursday after a member of the EU team tested positive for COVID-19, but officials continued working remotely to clinch a trade deal that would come into force in just six weeks.

UK sources who work on state aid said Britain had offered to set up a regulator for corporate subsidies, something the EU has long asked for. But the sources said that, without knowing what London’s state aid regime would look like in the future, it was hard to work out rules to guide such a regulator.

One EU diplomat said the British proposal fell short of the bloc’s demand for a body independent from the government and with a clear mandate.

Britain’s transition out of the EU following Brexit ends on Dec. 31 and quotas and tariffs would hit bilateral trade from 2021, unless the estranged allies overcome their differences and seal a new partnership agreement that would also regulate ties from energy to transport to security.

Any agreement must still be approved by all EU countries, as well as the European Parliament, to come into effect.

With most deadlines missed and time running out, France, Belgium and the Netherlands have asked the Commission to update emergency plans in case talks fail and there is an abrupt split in trading ties.

POLITICO reports that Brexit negotiators have claimed for weeks that a deal was virtually within reach. Now the talks have actually gone virtual — after an EU negotiator tested positive for coronavirus — but there’s still no sign of an agreement, the European Commission told EU ambassadors Friday. 

The shift to negotiating by videoconference is just the latest setback in the talks, and while officials said it was more of an annoyance than anything more serious, there is little margin for error given the tight timetable. 

“This is definitely not ideal,” said an EU official closely involved in the talks. “It’s better if one can look each other in the eye or go for a walk through the corridors instead of talking via screens — especially in the end phase of the negotiations.”


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