LONDON/PARIS (Reuters) - Britain is confident it can get a deal on its future ties with the European Union if Brussels starts treating it as an independent negotiator, a source close to the British negotiating team said on Thursday.
But, underlining what sources in Brussels say is an impasse at talks since Britain left the EU in January, French officials later reiterated the 27-nation bloc’s position that London must make concessions for a deal to be reached this year.
The two sides have been unable to find any compromise on three main areas - the so-called level playing field guarantees of fair competition, governance and fisheries policy, according to the sources in Brussels and London.
Despite the coronavirus outbreak, Britain has said it will not ask for an extension to this year’s transition period.
Negotiators have until the end of the year to negotiate a trade deal and agreements on everything from fishing to transport, to replace more than 40 years of closely aligned relations. The EU wants one single overarching deal.
“I am quite positive ... I believe that in the core areas of this there is actually good understanding between negotiators,” the source said. “If we can get over the EU’s insistence on not treating us as a fully independent negotiator, I think we can make progress quite quickly.
“I am confident we will get over that ... but probably a bit more noise has to happen before we get to that point.”
Prime Minister Boris Johnson, a figurehead of the 2016 campaign to leave the EU, has shown no desire to prolong the talks despite officials in Brussels saying there is little time to negotiate a deal for a future relationship.
But London’s negotiators suggest that the EU is complicating matters by refusing to base the talks on deals already struck with other countries, such as Canada, and instead asking for additional provisions.
A French official said Britain’s insistence on framing the issue as one of sovereignty was flawed, as it did not recognise that the EU could not offer access to its market while leaving Britain free to undercut European companies by deregulating.
“It can’t work if British negotiators continue to say they won’t accept any rules and that they need the Canada deal,” the official told Reuters.
The French official said the EU always struck customised deals with trade partners, and never applied a pre-defined model.
“When we talk of a Canadian model, that doesn’t mean reproducing the deal with Canada with every single trade partner,” the French official said.
After talks last week, which were held virtually because of the coronavirus crisis, chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier said London must budge for a deal to be sealed in the time available.
“We agree with Barnier that there is little time, there is the need to make progress. What is very clear to me is that if we were agreeing a standard Canada-style trade agreement, we could do it quite quickly,” the source close to the British negotiating team said.
“If they continue to insist on their position on the so-called level playing field and continuing the common fisheries policy, we’re never going to accept that ... but I hope they will move on from it.”
The French officials who spoke to Reuters said EU negotiators would not budge on the issue of the level playing field, which they said was crucial to any deal being signed, and expected British negotiators to make concessions.
“There can’t be a deal with no level-playing field. That’s not possible,” the official said.
Reporting by Elizabeth Piper in London and Michel Rose in Paris; editing by Stephen Addison and Timothy Heritage