Britain must follow the “rules of the game” if it wants tariff-free trade with the EU from the end of this year, the European Commission president has warned.
In a press conference to mark the end of her first 100 days in office Ursula von der Leyen said that the UK had to “make up its mind” whether it wanted to keep access.
Brexit trade talks kicked off last week in Brussels but stumbled on the issue of whether the UK would stay aligned with some EU rules as part of a “level playing field” of regulations.
EU countries are worried that the UK will deregulate and undercut the EU on standards, and say tariff-free trade can only continue if the UK signs up to certain standards on the environment, workers’ rights, state aid and product standards.
“We are aware that there are differences in approach towards what scope a future agreement should have – and if I may say so, the rules of the game everyone has to abide to,” Ms von der Leyen told reporters.
“It will be important that the UK makes up its mind – the closer they want to have access to the single market, the more they have to play by the rules that are the rule of the single market.
“If this is not the UK’s choice then they will be more distant and it will be more difficult for the UK to access the single market. So I think it’s up to the UK within these negotiations to think about the trade-offs they want to take into account.”
Speaking last week at the close of the first round of talks the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier said the UK had to respect the EU’s “independence” and sovereignty and the fact that the bloc would impose its own conditions on continued trade.
UK officials say they are happy to sign up to some form of level playing field but that they are not prepared to go as far as the EU wants. British negotiators are keeping on eye on a potential trade deal with Donald Trump’s United States, which would be more difficult
There are three other main stumbling blocks in talks identified by officials on both sides of the divide. One is the format of the agreement: the EU wants a single “association agreement” while the UK says a number of separate agreements would be better.
The question of fishing and access to UK waters is also seen as a difficult, as is the issue of criminal justice and judicial cooperation – where the UK has refused to sign guarantees that it will protect human rights.
The British government has rejected close alignment with the EU that would allow frictionless trade with the bloc in the future.
Even if Downing Street does sign up to a level playing field for regulations, there would still be new customs checks on goods that are expected to have a significant negative economic impact.
Reacting to Ms Von der Leyen's comments, a No.10 spokesperson said: "I think the UK has made up its mind very decisively, and has been very clear about what it wants from its future relationship with the EU.
"The UK’s position is the one which secured a significant majority for the prime minister in the December general election."
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