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The UK and EU will hold their final scheduled round of negotiations in Brussels this week, starting on Tuesday, in the hope they can make sufficient progress in order to justify extra sessions ahead of Boris Johnson’s October 15 deadline. Both sides have expressed cautious optimism ahead of what is expected to be a make-or-break week for their future relations beyond the end of the year. But talks start today with a meeting of the Joint Committee, chaired by Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove and Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic, to discuss the implementation of last year’s divorce deal.
Brussels is still reeling after Downing Street put forward legislation to rip up sections of the Withdrawal Agreement relating to Northern Ireland.
However, the bloc believes completion of a free-trade agreement will alleviate concerns in No 10 about the province being cut-off from mainland Great Britain.
If by Friday enough progress is made in the negotiations, UK and EU officials will enter the “tunnel” – a top secret, intensive, round of talks – to hammer out the final details of the trade deal before a summit of European leaders on October 15.
European sources have suggested the bloc will need sufficient assurances on Britain’s future state aid policy, fishing opportunities and the Government’s Internal Market Bill ahead of sanctioning the talks.
An EU diplomat told Express.co.uk: “We’re not at that stage yet, you can’t talk about entering the tunnel when you’re still many miles from its opening.”
EU27 capitals are also demanding an “ironclad” enforcement mechanism to ensure Britain abides by any free-trade agreement after recent suggestions the Government would be willing break international law.
The EU doesn’t want to take the UK’s commitment to any future treaty on mutual trust, but instead it wants to make them legally binding with clear sanctions if Boris Johnson moves unilaterally to break them.
The issue of the Brexit Bill is being kept at arms length from Michel Barnier and Lord Frost, the two chief negotiators, but officials close to them have suggested a bust-up in the Joint Committee could deliver a devastating blow to the trade talks.
Both the UK and EU have softened their rhetoric in recent weeks as hopes of a deal appeared to be rising in London and Brussels.
Mr Johnson is understood to be keen to secure a Brexit deal because the political ramifications of not signing a pact with Brussels would severely damage his premiership, which is already under strain due to the handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
If progress is not made this week, Britain would almost certainly leave the bloc without an agreement, a move experts claim would poison relationships with the bloc for many years.
But securing a skinny trade deal which eliminates quotas and tariffs on goods would provide a platform for future cooperation.
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Brussels has even privately suggested a deal could see the bloc turn a blind eye to some of its customs rules to facilitate smoother trade with Britain.
This could help solve the riddle of how to avoid huge queues in and around Kent after Mr Gove last week suggested 7,000 truckers could clog up the roads while waiting to enter the bloc.
It has also been suggested the Commission would offer assurances it would not abuse small print in the Northern Ireland protocol to crackdown on state aid spending by the Government.
Businesses on both sides of the Channel have expressed fears of a no deal at the end of the transition period.
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The CBI’s Carolyn Fairburn said there was a “real concern” talks could still end in failure despite the recent uptick in mood.
She said a CBI poll showed half of firms have gone backwards with their preparations as cash reserves and stockpiles have been run down.
And Irish premier Micheal Martin said he “was not that optimistic” about the prospect of a UK-EU trade deal.
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