Britain and the European Union are heading for a bust-up in talks on a trade agreement beginning next week, after EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier warned Boris Johnson that Brussels will not accept a deal “at any price”.
Speaking after the remaining 27 member states agreed their negotiating position, Mr Barnier said that the UK must agree to a “level playing field” on rules and regulations and access to fishing waters “or there won’t be any agreement at all”.
His comments set the scene for a no-deal Brexit at the end of 2020, after Downing Street made clear that the prime minister’s top priority is to secure freedom to diverge from Brussels rules, even if it means leaving on World Trade Organisation terms.
EU foreign ministers agreed a hardened negotiating mandate requiring the UK to match future regulations in return for access to the single market. The paper confirmed a target date of June for agreement on fishing rights, but ditched a commitment – included in last year’s political declaration at British insistence – to conclude assessment of one another's financial services regulations by the same date, as well as a deadline for a data equivalency concord.
It demanded continued access for EU boats to UK fishing waters on existing terms, crossing Mr Johnson's clear red line that access must be renegotiated every year and ensure that "British fishing grounds are first and foremost for British boats".
In a Brussels press conference, Mr Barnier warned the prime minister against “backtracking” on the commitments he signed up to in October’s withdrawal agreement, including on new checks and controls on goods travelling between the British mainland and Northern Ireland.
He voiced “surprise” at suggestions from London that the UK had given no instructions to ports and airports to make preparations for additional checks following the imposition of a customs border down the Irish Sea at the end of this year.
And he dismissed Downing Street’s suggestion that its priority is to secure the “economic and political independence of the UK”, saying: “The political and economic independence of the UK doesn’t have to be negotiated. It has been done. It is achieved. That is not the purpose of these negotiations.”
A committee of cabinet Brexit hardliners, chaired by Mr Johnson, agreed on Tuesday morning to a negotiating mandate which puts a clean break from Brussels rules ahead of smooth trading relations.
Alongside Mr Johnson, members of the XS (Exit Strategy) committee included fervent Brexiteers Michael Gove, Dominic Raab, Priti Patel, George Eustice, Suella Braverman and Rishi Sunak, with business secretary Alok Sharma the only one to have campaigned to Remain in the 2016 referendum.
The PM’s official spokesman said the document – due for publication on Thursday – set the scene for “constructive” engagement on a free trade agreement (FTA) similar to existing deals between the EU and other major countries such as Canada and Japan.
No 10 said: “The EU has respected the autonomy of other major economies around the world such as Canada and Japan when signing trade deals with them. We just want the same.
“We agree the UK’s trade with the EU is significant. The US’s is on the same scale – yet that did not stop the EU being willing to offer the US zero tariffs without the kind of level playing field commitments or the legal oversight they have put in today’s mandate.”
But Mr Barnier said a Canada-style deal was not on offer, adding that the UK’s geographical closeness and economic integration with the EU put it in a “unique” situation which meant it was not comparable with the US.
“The UK will be the EU’s third-largest trade partner, 10 times bigger than Canada,” he said. “At the same time, Canada is some 5,000km away. It is clear that the rules can’t be the same. It is logical. It is simple.”
Mr Barnier warned: ”We are ready to offer a highly ambitious trade deal to the UK, but the UK can’t expect high-quality access to the single market if it is not prepared to accept guarantees that competition remains open and fair, free and fair.
“There must be robust level playing field safeguards to avoid unfair competitive advantages on social, environmental, tax and state aid matters.”
The PM’s official spokesman said: “The EU are trying to use our proximity to add additional requirements for trade. The fact is proximity is not a determining factor in other FTAs around the world, including some of the world's largest economies."
Trade deals between the US and Canada or Australia and New Zealand had not involved the sort of "onerous" commitments being sought by the EU, he said.
The spokesman said Mr Johnson was not trying to renege on the commitments made in the political declaration but said that the EU's mandate itself "moves away from" what was agreed in October.
On fishing, the PM’s official spokesman said: “The UK didn’t vote twice to take back control of its fishing waters only to give that control up again.
“As a matter of fact, it doesn’t matter what the EU puts in its mandate as we become an independent coastal state on 31 December 2020. That means we automatically take back control of our waters and others' right to fish in them under the UN convention of the law of the sea. This does not have to be negotiated nor will it be."
Four days of talks are due to commence in Brussels on Monday, with the UK side led by Mr Johnson’s chief negotiator David Frost. A second round will take place in London from 16 March, with further talks expected over the remaining 10 months before Mr Johnson’s 31 December deadline.
“These will be complex, demanding, very difficult negotiations. In order to be successful, this will require trust and confidence,” said Mr Barnier. “That is possible. It requires negotiation in good faith.”
The short period for negotiation was “chosen by the British government”, he stressed, adding: “In a very brief period, you can’t do everything, we will do as much as we can under pressure of time.”
And he warned: “If we want to succeed in the very short time that Mr Johnson has chosen, we need to make sure we don’t start backtracking where we should be making progress.”
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