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UK, EU resume crunch Brexit talks in London

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EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier wearing a mask because of the novel coronavirus pandemic walks to a conference centre to continue negotiations on a trade deal between the EU and the UK in London on November 9, 2020. – The European Union and Britain said major divergences remain but that post-Brexit negotiations would continue this week to clinch a trade deal in the scant time left. (Photo by Tolga Akmen / AFP)

Britain and the European Union resumed crucial negotiations in London on Monday over a post-Brexit free trade deal, with time running short and both sides saying major obstacles remain.

EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier arrived in the British capital late Sunday before another week of talks with his UK counterpart David Frost, as they scramble to find an agreement within weeks.

Britain formally left the bloc in January but remains bound by most of its rules and regulations until the end of the year under the terms of its divorce.

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Parliaments on both sides of the Channel need time to ratify any deal struck, leaving scant time for London and Brussels to find a compromise on key outstanding issues.

These include agreeing rules for competition between British and European companies and fishing rights and access.

Observers have said they will be cutting it very fine if an agreement is not reached by mid-November.

In a weekend phone call, Prime Minister Boris Johnson and European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen agreed big differences still need to be bridged after two weeks of “intense” meetings ended last Wednesday.

Von der Leyen vowed both negotiating teams would “continue working hard” while Johnson said they would “redouble efforts to reach a deal”.

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However, neither side has indicated yet that they are willing to make the compromises needed for a breakthrough.

‘Sensible approach’
Britons voted to end decades of economic and political integration in 2016 but Brexit has implementing that outcome has proved immensely difficult since.

After finally agreeing to initial divorce terms last year, the two sides began fraught negotiations over a future free trade deal.

They had predicted a draft would need to be finalised by mid-October in order to be ratified by the EU and UK parliaments before the end of the year.

But the coronavirus pandemic strained the already ambitious timetable, while the most divisive issues have stalled the talks for months.

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Without a deal, Britain would leave the EU single market and customs union at midnight on December 31 and significant barriers to cross-Channel trade and business would immediately be imposed.

London and Brussels still insist they would prefer to avoid the economic disruption that this would entail.

Environment Secretary George Eustice offered a glimmer of hope that the UK could be ready to show more flexibility over EU access to British waters for fishing crews.

“We’ve always been open to doing a sensible approach looking particularly at agreements that might span a couple, three years for instance,” he told Sky News.

Britain has been reported to be holding out for annual talks over fisheries access.

“We’re going to be sensible in how we approach this but making sure that we have control of our own waters again and controlled access to our waters has always been a red line for us in these negotiations,” Eustice added.

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