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UK, EU Trade Talks at Tricky Point     12/04 06:20

   

   LONDON (AP) -- Britain's business minister said Friday that U.K.-EU trade 
talks are at a "difficult" point, as British officials poured cold water on 
hopes of an imminent breakthrough --- and France said it could veto any 
agreement it didn't like.

   U.K. Business Secretary Alok Sharma said Britain was "committed to reaching 
an agreement."

   "But, of course, time is short and we are in a difficult phase. There's no 
denying that," he told the BBC. "There are a number of tricky issues that still 
have to be resolved."

   EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier, his British counterpart David Frost and 
their teams remained locked in talks in a London conference center Friday after 
a week of late-night sessions fueled by deliveries of sandwiches and pizza.

   U.K. officials sought to dampen hopes of an imminent deal, briefing media 
outlets that the EU had set back negotiations by making last-minute demands --- 
an allegation the bloc denies.

   The U.K. left the EU early this year, but remains part of the 27-nation 
bloc's economic embrace during an 11-month transition as the two sides try to 
negotiate a new free-trade deal to take effect Jan. 1. Any deal must be 
approved by lawmakers in Britain and the EU before year's end.

   Talks have dragged on as one deadline after another has slipped by. First, 
the goal was a deal by October, then by mid-November. On Sunday, Britain said 
the negotiations were in their final week. Now the two sides say they could 
stretch into the weekend or beyond.

   European Council President Charles Michel noted that it wasn't the first 
time that deadlines had slipped.

   "We will see what will happen in the next days," he said in Brussels. "But 
the end of December is the end of December and we know that after the 31st of 
December we have the 1st of January, and we know that we need to have clarity 
as soon as possible."

   A trade deal will allow goods to move between Britain and the EU without 
tariffs or quotas after the end of this year, though there would still be new 
costs and red tape for businesses on both sides of the English Channel.

   If there is no deal, New Year's Day will bring huge disruption, with the 
overnight imposition of tariffs and other barriers to U.K.-EU trade. That will 
hurt both sides, but the burden will fall most heavily on Britain, which does 
almost half its trade with the EU.

   Months of tense negotiations have produced agreement on a swath of issues, 
but serious differences remain over the "level playing field" --- the standards 
the U.K. must meet to export into the bloc --- and how future disputes are 
resolved. That's key for the EU, which fears Britain will slash social and 
environmental standards and pump state money into U.K. industries, becoming a 
low-regulation economic rival on the bloc's doorstep.

   But the U.K. government, which sees Brexit as all about "taking back 
control" from Brussels, is resisting curbs on its freedom to set future 
economic policies.

   Another sticking point is fish, a small part of the economy with an outsized 
symbolic importance for Europe's maritime nations. EU countries want their 
boats to be able to keep fishing in British waters, while the U.K. insists it 
must control access and quotas.

   Fishing is especially important to France, which is seen by many on the U.K. 
side as the EU nation most resistant to compromise and likeliest to scuttle a 
deal.

   "If there was to be an agreement and it was not good ... we would oppose 
it," Clement Beaune, France's junior minister in charge of European Affairs, 
told Europe 1 radio. "France like all its (EU) partners has a veto right."

   If there is no weekend breakthrough, next week will bring more 
complications. On Monday Britain's House of Commons will vote on a bill that 
gives Britain the power to breach parts of the legally binding withdrawal 
agreement it struck with the EU last year.

   Prime Minister Boris Johnson's government acknowledges that the Internal 
Market Bill breaches international law, and the legislation has been condemned 
by the EU, U.S. President-elect Joe Biden and scores of British lawmakers, 
including many from Johnson's own Conservative Party.

   The House of Lords, Parliament's upper chamber, removed the law-breaking 
clauses from the legislation last month, but Johnson's government says it will 
ask lawmakers to reinsert them.

   That would further sour the talks, demolishing any good will that remains 
between the two sides.

 
 
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