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UPDATED: UK and EU abandon deadline to continue Brexit trade deal talks

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson and EU chief Ursula von der Leyen have agreed to carry on post-Brexit trade talks after a call between leaders on Sunday.

UPDATED: UK and EU abandon deadline to continue Brexit trade deal talks
An EU flag and Union flag flying near Big Ben, London. Photo: AFP

In a joint statement, Boris Johnson and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said it was “responsible at this point to go the extra mile”. The pair discussed “major unresolved topics” during their call.

The two sides had said Sunday was the deadline for a decision on whether to continue with talks, with Britain due to leave the EU single market in 19 days.

On Saturday, Britain took the dramatic step of announcing that armed naval vessels will patrol its waters from January 1 to exclude European crews from the fisheries they have shared, in some cases for centuries.

Brussels' tone has been less bellicose, and von der Leyen has made it clear that the EU will respect UK sovereignty after Britain's post-Brexit transition period, but neither side is yet ready to compromise on its core principles.

Without a trade deal cross-Channel trade will revert to WTO rules, with tariffs driving up prices and generating paperwork for importers, and the failed negotiation may poison relations between London and Brussels for years to come.

On Wednesday, after what von der Leyen described as a “lively and interesting” working supper with Johnson in Brussels failed to find a breakthrough, the EU chief said they had agreed to “come to a decision by the end of the weekend”.

But if the talks are to be extended again, it would only be for “for a maximum of a few days”, France's Minister for Europe Clement Beaune told the newspaper Journal du Dimanche. “We're already in extra time,” he warned.

Much of the text of a possible trade deal is said to be ready, but Britain has rejected Brussels' insistence on a mechanism to allow it to retaliate if UK and EU law diverge in a way that puts continental firms at a competitive disadvantage.

Poisoned ties

“The defence of the single market is a red line for the European Union. What we have proposed to the United Kingdom respects British sovereignty. It could be the basis for an agreement,” a senior EU source said, echoing an earlier von der Leyen statement.

In London, a government spokesman stressed Britain was ready to leave the union and handle its own affairs after 47 years of close economic integration and that “as things stand, the offer on the table from the EU remains unacceptable.

“The prime minister will leave no stone unturned in this process, but he is absolutely clear: any agreement must be fair and respect the fundamental position that the UK will be a sovereign nation in three weeks' time,” the source said.

On Saturday, Downing Street had said the government had a playbook that “maps out every single foreseeable scenario” for potential problems after December 31, and “no one needs to worry about our food, medicine or vital supply chains”.

Johnson has said it is “very, very likely” talks will fail, and EU officials have expressed similar pessimism, but Frost and Barnier talked late into Saturday night and resumed on Sunday.

As talks continued in Brussels this weekend, some hardline UK Conservative MPs sought assurances from Johnson that the navy would be deployed to protect British waters. But others warned against needless provocation.

“We need to be building alliances not breaking them apart,” said Tobias Ellwood, a former army captain who heads the UK parliament's defence select committee.

Border bureaucracy

WTO terms would mean tariffs and quotas, driving up prices for businesses and consumers and the re-introduction of border checks for the first time in decades.

That has already raised the prospect of traffic clogging roads leading to seaports in southeast England, as bureaucracy lengthens waiting times for imports and exports.

Transport companies have also warned that EU member Ireland could see import volumes shrink in the event of new customs procedures for goods routed through Britain.

REMINDER: What Brits in Europe need to know about travel after December 31st

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BREXIT

UK driving licences in Spain: When no news is bad news

The UK Ambassador to Spain has given an update on the driving licence debacle, with nothing new to genuinely give hope to the thousands of in-limbo drivers whose increasing frustration has led one group to try and take matters into their own hands.

UK driving licences in Spain: When no news is bad news

It’s been almost five months since UK driving licence holders residing in Spain were told they could no longer drive on Spanish roads. 

Since that fateful May 1st, an unnamed number of the approximately 400,000 UK nationals who are residents in Spain, as well as hundreds if not thousands of Spaniards and foreign nationals who passed their driving test in the UK, have not been able to use their vehicles in Spain or even rent one. 

What adds insult to injury is that British tourists visiting Spain can rent a car without any issue. The fact that Spanish licence holders living in the UK can also continue to exchange their permits in the UK 21 months after Brexit came into force is equally hard to swallow.

READ MORE: ‘An avoidable nightmare’ – How UK licence holders in Spain are affected by driving debacle

The latest update from UK Ambassador to Spain Hugh Elliott on September 27th has done little to quell the anger and sense of helplessness felt by those caught in this bureaucratic rabbit hole.

“I wanted to talk to you personally about the driving licences negotiations, which I know are continuing to have a serious impact on many of you,” Elliott began by saying.

“As the government’s representative in Spain, I hear and understand your frustrations. I too am frustrated by the pace.

“We previously thought, we genuinely thought, that we’d have concluded negotiations by the summer. 

“Many of you have quite rightly mentioned that I expressed the hope to you that we’d have you back on the road by the end of July.

“Now the truth is it has taken much longer, as there have been unforeseen issues that we have been working very hard to resolve. 

“And I’m as disappointed as you are by the length of time that this is actually taking. 

“But, please, be assured that we are resolving those issues, one by one. There are only a couple of issues left, but they are complex.”

It has previously been suggested by the UK Embassy that Spain has asked for data provision to form part of the exchange agreement, and that British authorities were reluctant to share said information on British drivers’ records, including possible infractions. 

Whether this is still one of the causes of the holdups is unknown, given how opaque the Embassy is being in this regard. 

“We’re working on this every day, it remains a priority,” the UK Ambassador continued.

“There is a lot going on behind the scenes, even if it doesn’t feel like it to you. 

“I know too that you want a timescale and you want an update after every meeting.

“But I’m afraid I just can’t give you those things in this negotiation.” 

The ambassador’s words are unlikely to appease those who are still unable to drive. 

A few weeks ago, a Facebook group called “Invasion of the British embassy in Madrid for the DL exchange issue” was set up, which so far has more than 400 members. 

The group’s administrator, Pascal Siegmund, is looking to set up a meeting with the British Embassy and Spanish authorities to shed light on the impact that not being allowed to drive is having on the life of thousands of UK licence holders in Spain. 

Many of those affected are sharing their stories online, explaining how, due to administrative errors on the part of Spain’s DGT traffic authority, they were unable to process their licence exchange before the deadline. 

This contrasts with the little sympathy shown by UK licence holders who were able to exchange and other commentators, who accuse those in limbo of not having bothered to complete the process, arguing that it’s essentially their own fault.

READ ALSO: Not all Brits in Spain who didn’t exchange UK driving licences are at fault 

“Many of you also continue to ask why you can’t drive while the talks are continuing,” Elliott remarked.

“It is not in the gift of the UK government to reinstate the measures which previously allowed you to continue to drive whilst the negotiations were ongoing earlier in the year. 

“As we said previously, we did request the reinstatement of those measures several times, but this wasn’t granted.”

It’s worth noting that since the news broke on May 1st that UK licence holders residing in Spain for more than six months could no longer drive, no Spanish news outlet has covered the story again. 

Pressure from citizen groups such as the one recently set up and increased awareness about the issue in English-language news sites such as The Local Spain is perhaps the best chance in-limbo drivers have of their voices being heard and the driving licence debacle being finally fixed. 

“I’d say we’re genuinely still making progress,” UK Ambassador Elliott concluded, practically the same message as in previous updates.

“I get how frustrating it is to hear that, but we are making progress. We’re in discussions almost daily about outstanding issues. 

“And I remain very optimistic that we will reach an agreement and hope it will be soon. 

“But as I say, I can’t give you a definitive timetable. 

“And so, the advice that we have been giving all along, which is that you should consider taking the Spanish test if you do need to drive urgently, remains valid. Though we appreciate that’s hard.”

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