Brexit negotiators put row over Johnson law-breaking to one side

BRUSSELS (BLOOMBERG) – European Union negotiators have agreed not to allow their opposition to Boris Johnson’s plan to break international law distract them from trying to secure a deal over the bloc’s relationship with the UK after Brexit.

The prime minister’s explosive proposal to rewrite the Withdrawal Agreement he signed eight months ago had threatened to derail any attempt to secure an EU-UK trade deal.

The bloc has given Johnson until the end of the month to back down or face legal action.

Officials close to the discussions, though, say the two sides have succeeded in taking the heat out of the situation.

Johnson’s chief Brexit negotiator, David Frost, held informal talks with his opposite number, Michel Barnier, in London on Wednesday (Sept 23), and they were able to lay the foundations for a round of negotiations in Brussels next week.

The EU is still likely to start legal action, but the bloc will, as one official put it, hold its nose and continue discussions with the British.

Johnson will come under pressure to withdraw the most controversial parts of his bill rewriting the Brexit divorce agreement when the outlines of a wider trade deal emerge, the official added.

Without such an accord, businesses face the risk of disruption when the UK leaves the EU’s single market and customs union at the end of the year.

But the negotiations have been deadlocked because the two sides can’t agree on what EU state-aid rules the UK will have to follow, and what access the bloc’s fishing boats will have to British waters.

FAR APART

EU governments have “agreed that our collective focus should continue to be on achieving a successful conclusion to the future relationship negotiations,” Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney told the country’s parliament on Thursday after talks with his counterparts in Brussels. He stressed that the two sides remain far apart.

Even so, negotiators are increasingly hopeful both sides want a deal.

EU officials say Johnson needs one to boost his reputation after it was dented by his handling of the coronavirus; their British counterparts say they believe the bloc is still ready to make more concessions.

It’s a situation ripe for finding compromise, one EU official said.

But a breakthrough isn’t expected next week – and the row over Johnson’s plan to undo parts of the Northern Ireland Protocol could still overshadow the start of the talks.

UK Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove is due to meet European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic in Brussels on Monday.

With only days to go before the EU’s deadline expires, that could make for an unpleasant start to the week, one official said.

Barnier and Frost are scheduled to resume negotiations on the future relationship on Tuesday. Barnier told EU diplomats this week that Johnson’s move had left some bad feeling, but the atmosphere between negotiators remained constructive.

With a little more than two weeks to go until Johnson’s own Oct 15 deadline to reach a deal, several officials warned the negotiations could now stretch into November or even December.

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