EU’s Barnier Warns of ‘Serious Divergences’ as U.K. Talks Start

EU’s Barnier Warns of ‘Serious Divergences’ as U.K. Talks Start

(Bloomberg) —

Michel Barnier, the European Union’s chief Brexit negotiator, warned of “serious divergences” with the U.K after the two sides ended their first week of negotiations over their future relationship.

Speaking to reporters in Brussels on Thursday, Barnier said the two sides are at loggerheads on four issues: competition policy, cooperation in criminal justice matters, control of U.K. fishing waters, and on the way any deal would be structured.

“There are many serious divergences,” Barnier said. Still, “an agreement is possible — even if difficult,” he added.

After three years of bad-tempered negotiations over the terms of the U.K.’s exit, the two sides want to strike a trade deal and an agreement in other areas, such as fishing rights. Failure to reach an accord by the year-end would result in the U.K. trading with the bloc on terms set by the World Trade Organization, meaning the return of quotas and tariffs.

The U.K. wants a series of separate agreements — in case some issues become impossible to agree on — while the EU insists there must be an overall deal dependent on Britain conceding on fisheries and maintaining key European standards.

Barnier said the talks were cordial and held in “a constructive spirit” in a “demanding context.” This week’s talks mark the first formal contact since the U.K. left the EU on January 31.

He said that his British counterpart, David Frost, had assured him that Britain will stick to the terms of its Withdrawal Agreement — in particular, the measures to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland. EU officials have been rattled by signs that Boris Johnson’s government is backsliding on the commitments it made.

The U.K. government is confident that the talks with the EU will continue on schedule despite the outbreak of the coronavirus, Johnson’s spokesman told reporters in London earlier.

The first round of talks were “constructive,” Downing Street spokesman James Slack said.

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