Speaking on June 5th 2020, at the end of the fourth round of talks on post-Brexit trade, EU Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier said:

Ladies and Gentlemen, to be clear, our lack of progress in this negotiation is not due to our method, but to the substance. We must stick to our commitments if we want to move forward.

We engaged in this negotiation on the basis of a joint political declaration that clearly sets out the terms of our future partnership. This document is available in all languages including English. It is not difficult to read; good weekend reading, if I may say. And this declaration was negotiated with Prime Minister Johnson himself. It was approved by the leaders of the 27 member states at the European Council in October 2019, it has the backing of the European Parliament also.

It is for us, and it will remain for us, the only valid reference, the only relevant precedent in this negotiation. And it was agreed by both sides. Yet round after round, our British counterparts seek to distance themselves from this common basis.

A few minutes later, British Chief Negotiator David Frost gave a press release, saying:

We are now at an important moment for these talks. We are close to reaching the limits of what we can achieve through the format of remote formal rounds.

If we are to make progress, it is clear that we must intensify and accelerate our work. We are discussing with the commission how this can best be done.

We need to conclude this negotiation in good time to enable people and businesses to have certainty about the trading terms that will follow the end of the transition period at the end of this year, and, if necessary, to allow ratification of any agreements reached.

For our part we are willing to work hard to see whether at least the outline of a balanced agreement, covering all issues, can be reached soon.

Any such deal must of course accommodate the reality of the UK’s well-established position on the so-called ‘level playing field’, on fisheries, and the other difficult issues.

It may be that both sides are employing fairly diplomatic language here, but I'm struggling to identify from these comments what the main sticking points within the negotiations are. Barnier seems to be accusing the UK of backtracking on commitments made in the Political Declaration, but I'm still unsure in particular in what way. Frost, for his part, seems to be accusing the EU of being inflexible with regard to the UK's firmly held positions - "the so-called ‘level playing field’, on fisheries, and the other difficult issues", but doesn't really give any more detail.

What are the main bones of contention holding up progress in the trade talks?

  • 2
    The Political Declaration is not legally binding, so the "commitments made" are not really commitments. And I don't recall whether it was ever accepted by UK Parliament.
    – Sjoerd
    Jun 6, 2020 at 11:21
  • @Sjoerd Intermediate steps in a negotiation are not usually approved by Parliament, only the final (legally binding) result is, so it would seem normal that this declaration was not accepted by Parliament. I don't think Barnier is saying it is illegal for the UK to backtrack on earlier declarations, it just makes negotiations difficult.
    – gerrit
    Jun 8, 2020 at 12:27

4 Answers 4


During the Brexit negotiations, fundamentally unresolvable differences were postponed. There will be a point when they will have to come to the table. Look at the terms regulatory alignment and level playing field.

  • The UK wants a Brexit which means Brexit, the right to make their own policies and trade agreements as they see fit. Speech by Johnson
  • The EU wants to protect the integrity of the Common Market, that is no free trade with nations which make differing policies and trade agreements. Speech by Barnier
  • Both want to retain the strong economic ties.

Basically the three bullet points cannot be reconciled. Something has to give. The EU27 are convinced that they have the stronger negotiation position and that the UK must retreat from their red lines while the EU27 red lines will be respected.

  • 3
    @Tim: Okay, I'll try to list some problematic points which aren't relevant to Canada/Japan: fishing waters, financial services, Gibraltar, European Court of Justice. I'll also note it took many months for the MPs to kinda agree on what they want. Jun 5, 2020 at 23:07
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    "Something has to give." Just wanted to point out that nothing actually 'has to give'. They can continue trade on a default set of rules already in place. It will not be as mutually beneficial as both sides would like, but it is plausible and, in the near term, practical (as in it can be done).
    – ouflak
    Jun 6, 2020 at 11:27
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    @ouflak Trading on WTO terms means that case point 3 - strong economic ties - is the one giving in. The economic ties will suffer from that, although it's hard to predict how much they are to suffer. (I agree this is the likely and practical outcome, but the answer does an excellent job of staying neutral so let's not put that judgement in the answer)
    – Sjoerd
    Jun 6, 2020 at 12:17
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    @Sjoerd. Agreed. I do like this answer. I'm not so sure I trust Boris Johnson or his political cohorts enough to say that any outcome is 'likely' at this moment. Politicians can magically transform into squirmy little worms when they begin to realize that they are going to be held up to the expectations they were elected upon. If he truly has the backbone, then yes, it is the likely outcome at this point. But if he and his party begins to flail and flagellate about the issue, or attempt to redefine their mandate, I'm not so sure what will happen.
    – ouflak
    Jun 6, 2020 at 13:07
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    @Tim: If both sides claim : "It's not a problem, the other side should just do this and that". It is a problem. If those problems haven't been solved or even clearly defined in 4 years, it doesn't seem like a fair assessment to say that it's all because the EU wants to prevent other countries to leave. Jun 7, 2020 at 7:28

The main blocker is that the UK is not respecting the agreement it made with the EU in the Withdrawal Agreement. It's actually clear from the quotes you provided - the EU has clear and well articulated issues with the UK trying to reneg on the deal it already signed, and the UK is unwilling to give specifics of any problems it feels exist.

The UK agreed to negotiate a comprehensive deal on fisheries, on EU citizens' rights, on human rights and on the level playing field. Those are all things that Barnier has stated that the UK is now unwilling to negotiate in good faith. The deal was agreed by Boris Johnson in person. We can only speculate as to why he and the UK government as a whole is doing this now.

  • 3
    And the most likely answer is that whatever Johnson agrees to in the end, will alienate an important part of his support. Thus he postpones to never. Jun 5, 2020 at 23:33
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    @Deduplicator on the contrary he can only postpone to the end of June before he has to commit to [not requesting] an extension, following that he has the end of the year to agree a deal. So at the end of June he refuses the transition (probably not alienating anyone who isn't already alienated) and then at the end of the year he has a real choice to make.
    – Jontia
    Jun 6, 2020 at 10:09
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    "The UK agreed to negotiate a comprehensive deal" True. But that doesn't mean that there needs to be any result of those negotiations, only that they will be engaged. "Those are all things that Barnier has stated that the UK is now unwilling to negotiate in good faith." That's his opinion and he certainly has a right to it. And it's sad that he's disappointed. But that's life sometimes. "We can only speculate as to why he and the UK government as a whole is doing this now" Let me take a wild guess - Politics. He has a mandate, and he and his party must fulfill it. A 'deal' wasn't part of that.
    – ouflak
    Jun 6, 2020 at 11:32
  • 1
    @Jonita, "...he can only postpone to the end of June before he has to commit to [not requesting] an extension" Not quite true. The law of the United Kingdom clearly states that the transition period ends on December 31st, 2020. There is nothing in that law about any 'extension'. So he can let negotiations go on forever without conclusion if he likes, or end them right now permanently. On December 31st, assuming there is no deal in place, we all fall back to a default set of trading rules.
    – ouflak
    Jun 6, 2020 at 11:41
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    @ouflak There is also a separate law that prohibits the UK government from requesting an extension after June 30th. Of course, laws can be changed, but you seem unaware of this law. This law is why he has to make a choice about extension or not now, and about which deal, if any, later.
    – Sjoerd
    Jun 6, 2020 at 12:38

The fundamental problem is simply that the UK is trying to have its cake and eat it too.

What the UK wants is free access to EU markets but without having to accept EU standards and EU laws covering the operation of those (internal EU) markets. No other country is allowed this and it would make no sense for the EU to grant such access.

It would make no more sense for the EU to demand access to UK markets without accepting UK standards and laws applying to those transactions. It is simply the UK demanding something that it would never itself grant.

They will simply never get this. The EU could never agree to this because it would automatically make being an EU member utterly pointless (at least economically). Every non-EU country which has a trade agreement would immediately demand the same deal, so that would also be out.

So what the UK had insisted it wants it quite simply cannot have.

As it will not move from that position there can be no progress.

But there are two more issues.

Firstly the EU, having agreed the framework outline for the new deal with the UK prior to departure now finds that the UK government has completely abandoned that agreed framework. This has damaged trust significantly and there was not much trust of the UK by EU members to start with because of all the insanity before that. The EU has done nothing more than respect that agreed framework and, not unreasonably, expects the same from the UK.

Secondly, the UK has consistently adopted an approach to negotiation throughout this process that in essence amounts to not negotiating or compromising in the hope that the other party "blinks first". This has not worked at all with the EU (which has the stronger position) but there seems every sign that the UK is again painting itself into a corner in the (probably mistaken) hope that the EU, which as not budged an iota, will suddenly turn round and grant it everything it wants.

This non-negotiation by the UK - a refusal to engage in the agreed plan outline to reach a final detailed deal - means that absolutely no progress is being made on any front. On the contrary, the UK seems to be deliberately presenting proposals it knows cannot be accepted. It is a deliberate process to (IMO) delay things to cause a crisis in, as I said, the hope the other party gives in.

It is worth pointing out that while the UK has left, other countries are keen to join the EU trading area under the same rules the current UK government has rejected. There is simply no incentive for the EU to budge and every incentive to not budge.

So we are in for another eleventh hour, fifty-ninth minute last-minute face-saving agreement, I think. And the result cannot possibly be anything but what the EU is already offering.


Even though Boris says he is requesting a deal that is similar to Canada/Japan, when he renegotiated (i.e. reduced) Theresa May's Political Declaration in October 2019, certain relics of Theresa May's version nevertheless remained (e.g. high-level access for all forms of public transportation and private road vehicles, Mutual recognition of Professional Qualifications). As these relics require some degree of approximating relevant EU rules, they would not normally be offered to fully Sovereign Third Countries, but rather they are offered as part of an 'EU Association Agreement' (e.g. Ukraine has several 'add-ons' in their deal when compared to Canada). In other words, Mr. Barnier still thinks that Boris wants an Association Agreement. It seems that the only way forward for Boris is to further reduce his demands for these 'add-ons' so that Boris proposed deal is more in line with a standard Free Trade Agreement.

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