Brexit Talks: The Sticking Points Explained

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As Prime Minister Boris Johnson heads to Brussels to try and move the EU-UK negotiations to a conclusion in their dying days, it’s worth remembering one simple fact: the issues that are causing problems now are the same ones that have always been barriers to a deal.

If the Article 50 talks that ran between 2017 and 2019 were all about ending UK membership of the European Union, then the current negotiations have been about creating a new relationship between the two sides. While the former dealt with the rights of citizens in each other’s territory and the management of the Irish dimension, the latter has been focused on more general trading arrangements and the extent to which the UK wants to remain aligned with EU rules in the future.

When those talks started in March of this year, three main sticking points were immediately obvious from the stated positions of the British government and the European Commission.


First, and perhaps least, is the question of fisheries. As a potent symbol of the failings of EU membership since the 1970s, with depletion of stocks and ever more of the catch being taken by non-UK vessels, it is not so surprising that the UK wants to be out of any obligations to retain elements of the Common Fisheries Policy. “British waters for British fishermen” is also one of the easier slogans to sell to a public that might be otherwise lost in the intricacies of all this.

By contrast, the EU would like to retain its access, partly because so much of the UK catch ends up on European plates but also because the arrangements for fisheries management it proposes are more robust and enforceable than the more usual model of cooperation that exists. Either way, the EU has grounded its arguments in the language of customary practice, which matters a lot in the law of the sea: basically, how things were should be a strong guide to how things will be.

While evocative, fisheries remains a tiny part of either side’s economic activity. So while it might make for punning headlines, it is unlikely to be the thing that makes or breaks this all. In addition, it has the great advantage that compromises can be found in a number of different ways, which makes it an ideal chip in balancing the other two, more fundamental problems.

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This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.

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