EU-UK trade talks kick off amid threats and deadlines

BRUSSELS (AP) — Long-awaited trade talks between the European Union and Britain kicked off yesterday amid deep tensions over Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s threat to walk away from the talks if not enough progress is made within four months.

Britain became the first country to ever leave the EU on January 31. Yesterday’s talks mark the start of a process aimed at securing its commercial, fishing and other ties with the world’s biggest trading bloc.

All that has to be concluded by the end of this year, according to Johnson.

Given that most EU trade deals with other countries take years to conclude, there is real time pressure on the negotiators.

This week’s negotiations will take place in Brussels. The EU will be represented by the European Commission, which has supervised the Brexit process and which negotiates international trade agreements on behalf of the 27 member countries. EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier has said that no deal can provide the frictionless trade that membership provided.

The first round of talks will run until Thursday and are set to centre mostly on negotiating formalities, although some discussion on the substance of an agreement is expected.

The teams are expected to meet every two-three weeks, alternating between Brussels and London. Half a dozen or so rounds of negotiations are expected to take place by the end of June.

That will be a crucial moment in the discussions. Under the divorce agreement signed last year, Britain must decide by then whether it wants to extend a transition period that is aimed at smoothing its departure from the bloc, of which it was a member of for 47 years.

Johnson has insisted that he won’t be asking for any extension to the transition period beyond the end of this year.

European Union chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier, left, walks to an EU meeting in Brussels. PHOTO: AP