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BREXIT

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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BRITS IN EUROPE

Brits in Europe won right to vote for life in UK but questions remain

After years of campaigns and promises British citizens living abroad finally won the lifelong right to vote in UK general elections in April 2022. But campaigners say more needs to be done to allow all those Britons abroad to be able cast their votes easily.

Brits in Europe won right to vote for life in UK but questions remain

What’s in the law?

The Elections Act 2022 introduced several changes to the current legislation on electoral participation. Among these, it removed the rule by which British citizens lose their voting rights in the UK if they have lived abroad for more than 15 years

The new rules also abolished the requirement to have been previously registered in the UK electoral roll to become an overseas voter. In addition, the registration in the electoral roll will now last up to three years instead of only one year.

It is estimated that these changes could increase the number of overseas voter registrations by some 3 million. But the way new measures will be applied in practice is still to be defined.

READ ALSO: ‘Mixed feelings’ – British citizens in Europe finally get right to vote for life

Defining the practicalities

Under the new law, Britons living abroad will have to register to vote in the last place they were registered in the UK. This means that people who have never lived in the UK will be ineligible to vote, regardless of how long they have been overseas, while those who left when they were children will be able to use a parent or guardian’s address.

But given that the UK does not require residents to register with local councils, how to prove previous UK residence? “Typical documents accepted as a proof of residence are Council tax or utilities bills, but not everyone will have them or will have kept them in an international move,” says Fiona Godfrey, co-founder of the British in Europe coalition.

Ballot papers are pictured in stacks in a count centre as part of the 2019 UK general election. (Photo by ANDY BUCHANAN / AFP)

Other questions concern how people will effectively cast their ballot. UK citizens overseas will be able to vote by post or by proxy or in person at their polling station if they are in the UK at the time of the election. However, few people are likely to travel to the UK for an election and in the past there have problems and delays with postal voting.

The Electoral Commission has recommended that overseas electors appoint a proxy to vote on their behalf. But who could that be for people who have been away from their constituency for a long time?

New secondary legislation will have to answer these questions, defining how to be included in the electoral roll and how to exercise the voting right in practice.

According to British in Europe, the government should present draft legislation in the first half of the year so that the parliament can adopt it before summer and registrations of overseas voters can start in the autumn.

British in Europe survey

British in Europe are currently running a survey to understand the difficulties UK citizens abroad may face in the registration and voting process, as well as their intention to participate in elections.

The survey asks for instance which documents people can access to prove their previous residence in the UK, what problems they had voting in the past, and if and how they plan to vote in the future.

“We need to get an up-to-date picture of British citizens living around the world and have information to make recommendations to the government, as it prepares secondary legislation,” Godfrey said. “If millions of people will exercise their voting rights, there will be consequences for council registration offices, post office and authorities that will manage the process, among other things” she argued.

The right to vote concerns only UK parliamentary elections and national referendums, not elections in the devolved administrations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, or at local level.

The survey is open to UK citizens living anywhere in the world and is available at this link.

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