The UK and the EU completed the fourth round of their future relationship negotiations last Friday. As many had thought, very little – if any – progress was made. In statements following the conclusion of the fourth round, UK Chief Negotiator David Frost said:

“Progress remains limited but our talks have been positive in tone. Negotiations will continue and we remain committed to a successful outcome. 

 We are now at an important moment for these talks.  We are close to reaching the limits of what we can achieve through the format of remote formal Rounds. If we are to make progress, it is clear that we must intensify and accelerate our work. We are discussing with the Commission how this can best be done.”

 Whilst EU Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier said:

“We can only take note that there has been no substantial progress since the beginning of these negotiations, and that we cannot continue like this forever.

 Especially given the United Kingdom's continued refusal to extend the transition period.”

 The two sides remain at loggerheads over several of the key issues in these negotiations, including the so-called level-playing field provisions, the architecture of the agreement/ governance and fisheries. As outlined by Barnier, the EU insistence on “parallelism” requires sufficient progress to be made on these key issues before the true horse-trading on the other negotiating tracks can occur. With such little progress made so far, it is not surprising to see mention of a transition period extension. You can see more about the process for extending the transition period in our previous blog. A reminder that the Withdrawal Agreement provides that “the Joint Committee may, before 1 July 2020, adopt a single decision extending the transition period for up to 1 or 2 years.”

The transition period will end – unless extended, which seems so far very unlikely, given the UK Government’s position – on 31 December 2020. This gives very little time for the negotiations to be completed. If you thought 31 December was tight, then Barnier’s statement revealed that in order to allow for ratification “… we would need a full legal text by 31 October at the latest, i.e. in less than 5 months.” It is still not clear whether or not the agreement will be of a “mixed” nature, which would impact the ratification process and timing.

Both the EU and the UK will convene this month at a ‘high-level’ meeting as agreed in Political Declaration to take stock of the negotiations (the exact timing is currently under discussion but it is unclear whether or not it will take place before or after the meeting of the EU27 leaders on 19 June). The Joint Committee formed under the Withdrawal Agreement (and the body which would need to take the decision to extend the transition period) is to meet this Friday.

The Chief Negotiators statements indicated that negotiations will continue, although the precise details are still to be worked through. To-date, the EU has maintained the importance of a three-week negotiating rhythm, to allow for the Member States, the European Parliament and other stakeholders to be briefed and give feedback, but perhaps negotiations could become more intense, in a way that they did towards the end of the negotiations on the Withdrawal Agreement. Of course when the UK Government set out its mandate for the talks, it said that if the broad outline of a deal was not in place by June “the Government will need to decide whether the UK’s attention should move away from negotiations and focus solely on continuing domestic preparations to exit the transition period in an orderly fashion”. Despite this threat, a UK walk out doesn’t currently appear to be on the cards.  

With thanks to Eugene McQuaid for his input in this article.