By Guy Faulconbridge and John Chalmers
LONDON/BRUSSELS (Reuters) – The European Union is determined to get a Brexit trade deal with Britain but will be firm and realistic with London after Prime Minister Boris Johnson decided to break the divorce agreement, EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier said on Wednesday.
The United Kingdom left the EU in January but remains a member in all but name until the end of the year, by which time it hopes to have clinched a free trade deal with the bloc.
Talks have snagged on fishing, state aid rules and how trade will flow to Northern Ireland, which will remain – under the 2020 divorce treaty – in closer orbit to the EU than will the rest of the United Kingdom.
After Johnson introduced a bill that would override parts of the 2020 accord, the EU demanded that he step back from the brink though parliament on Tuesday backed giving Johnson the powers to undercut it.
The bloc could take legal action over the proposed breach of international law, though this could take years to resolve, and in the meantime EU diplomats say Brussels wants negotiations on its future relationship with Britain to continue.
On arrival in London before informal talks with Britain, Barnier told Reuters when asked if he was optimistic about reaching a deal: “I am determined.”
“We remain calm, respectful, realistic and firm,” Barnier said, though he declined to comment on the Internal Market Bill or on the odds of securing a trade deal.
Britain has said it hopes never to need to use proposed powers while the timetabling of the Internal Market Bill in the British parliament means that it will take most of October and November to consider.
That means it will not be law either before an EU end-of-September deadline to withdraw the plan, or Johnson’s Oct. 15 deadline for a deal with the EU.
“The timetable for the passage of the bill does provide a welcome space for constructive engagement on the concerns raised by the UK,” a senior EU diplomat said.
“My understanding is that a decision on possible EU legal action won’t be taken until early October,” the diplomat said.
Failure to reach a deal would create uncertainty over trade in everything from car parts and shellfish to data and Scotch whisky, while spooking financial markets just as Europe’s economies grapple with a second wave of the COVID-19 outbreak.
British trucks could face delays of up to two days to enter Europe and queues of around 7,000 lorries after Britain leaves the bloc at the end of this year, disrupting imports and exports of crucial goods, the government has warned.
Michael Gove, the minister overseeing the Brexit talks, told the logistics and freight industry that truck drivers would face new customs controls and processes irrespective of whether a trade deal can be agreed between the two sides.
He said under the government’s reasonable worst case scenario, up to 70% of trucks travelling to the EU might not be ready for new border controls.
Britain says it is working hard to reach an agreement, but has stuck to its position that any deal must respect the country’s sovereignty.
The EU says because of Britain’s proximity to the bloc, London must agree to a so-called level playing field of fair competition guarantees.
Although the EU is holding a summit on Oct. 1-2, just after the deadline expires, the bloc’s leaders will not consider next steps on relations with Britain until another summit in mid-October.