Brussels and London flex muscles as EU prepares to finalise post-Brexit trade stance

Europe

25 February 2020, 12:05

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Ministers from EU countries meet in Brussels on Tuesday to formalise the bloc’s negotiating stance ahead of upcoming post-Brexit trade talks with the UK.

The mandate is expected to be approved by the EU General Affairs Council – made up mainly of European Affairs ministers. UK ministers are also due to meet to discuss the British stance, which is scheduled to be published on Thursday.

Both sides have been outlining sharply contrasting positions as they flex their muscles in advance of the formal negotiations, due to get underway next week.

British officials have been underlining the determination of Boris Johnson’s government to reject EU supervision and set its own rules. Meanwhile European leaders have been warning that the more the UK diverges, the less access it will have to EU markets.

The EU negotiating team under Michel Barnier is reported to have adapted its draft mandate to include a provision that EU standards should be a “reference point” when it comes to ensuring “fair competition” and a “level playing field” in the future economic partnership.

Some observers interpret that as a sign of flexibility on the EU’s part, perhaps giving the UK some wiggle room to avoid having to fall completely into line with EU rules in areas such as tax, the environment and employment law.

Earlier this month, Boris Johnson pledged that the UK would not “engage in some cut-throat race to the bottom” and was not seeking to “undermine EU standards”.

However, a Downing Street spokesman was quoted on Monday as saying that the UK’s main goal was to “restore our economic and political independence” from next January, when the standstill transition period ends.

The UK is demanding a free trade agreement (FTA) similar to those struck by Brussels with countries such as Canada, South Korea and Japan – which remove most tariffs and obligations to stick to EU rules.

“It’s a basic bare bones deal, basic provisions for goods and services, nothing close on regulations,” trade lawyer Miriam González Durántez told Euronews’ Good Morning Europe. 

“Regulatory alignment is the difficult bit. I fear the UK is not interested in regulatory alignment, so in my view the best we are ever going to get is a Canada-style deal, but it’s very likely right now we won’t have a deal at all.”

Michel Barnier has rejected such a deal for the UK with the same conditions as other countries, citing the UK’s geographical proximity to the EU – a factor underlined in the Political Declaration to which both sides signed up as part of the Brexit divorce deal.

Johnson’s office has accused Brussels of reneging on an original offer. But the EU’s stance is not new – it made the same point in negotiating guidelines in 2018 – leading to criticism that the British government is being disingenuous.

Potential flashpoints in the negotiations are in areas such as state aid – where the UK rejects EU rules – fishing, which the EU wants attached to trade talks, and Northern Ireland.

Last weekend the French President Emmanuel Macron warned that he was “not sure that an agreement will be reached between now and the end of the year”, describing the British as “very hard”.

“The two sides are far apart in a way, some of what is happening now is typical behaviour at the beginning of negotiations, to set your extreme position,” says Miriam González Durántez.

“On the other hand it’s true in the UK there has been a fundamental change. During the last three years the UK was working towards a comprehensive and close agreement with the EU, but now the UK government doesn’t want it. I fear in a way it has taken the EU some time to realise that is the game changer.”

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