The plenary session of the third round of UK-EU future relationship negotiations takes place on the afternoon of 11 May 2020.

The published agenda for this round of virtual talks is similar to that for round 2. Maximum time has been dedicated to the trade in goods, trade in services and foreign direct investment and the level playing field. The allocation reflects key priorities and the areas where the most work is to be done.

The major change for this round is on fishing rights. Fisheries have also been allocated three days of discussions. This is unsurprising; the UK government recently published its draft fisheries agreement and the EU has identified fishing rights as a precondition for agreement on all other aspects of “trade” (in the broadest sense). However, fisheries are likely to be a major sticking point as the UK’s draft agreement is based significantly on the Norway-EU fisheries agreement the EU has repeatedly said is not on offer to the UK.

Disagreements about fisheries (arguably more important emotively and politically than economically) may dominate the press coverage of this summit. Politically, this may add to the distance between the parties on a range of other trade issues.  It currently seems unlikely that there will be many good news stories emerging on those areas where the parties have different ambitions.

It is increasingly clear that the parties desire different outcomes from these talks. The UK wants a relatively limited free trade agreement to facilitate trade while maximising UK independence. The EU wants to retain a lot more of the existing integration. The EU, which based its negotiating mandate on the political declaration agreed last year, will feel the UK is rowing back on a position agreed in principle. With little progress allegedly made in rounds 1 or 2 and a very obvious sticking point at the front and centre of round 3, David Frost, the UK’s chief negotiator, is expected to repeat that talks must be progressed this month as the UK Government will not agree to extend them. The deadline for agreeing an extension to the transition period is 30 June. 

This leaves little room for manoeuvre.  If the UK sticks to the timetable and an unwillingness to engage with the EU's priorities, there is unlikely to be much appetite within EU states to reconsider its negotiating mandate in time to bring the EU position closer to the UK’s by the end of June.  Aside from the points of principle involved, EU members are prioritising their responses to the Covid-19 pandemic and may be less likely to have time for such reconsideration.