EU tells UK to respect its independence

Chief negotiator Michel Barnier says ‘the EU sets its own conditions for opening up its markets for goods and services’

Jon Stone
Thursday 05 March 2020 13:44
'Respect our independence', EU's Michel Barnier tells UK

Britain must respect the EU’s “independence” and accept that the bloc has its own red lines in trade talks, its chief negotiator has warned Boris Johnson.

Michel Barnier was speaking in Brussels at the close of the first round of Brexit trade negotiations, where he warned that “very, very difficult” differences were emerging between both sides with the clock ticking down.

“Let’s avoid any misunderstandings: the UK has spent a lot of time this week insisting on its independence: ladies and gentlemen, nobody contests the UK’s independence. We also ask the UK to respect our own independence,” Mr Barnier said.

“Of course, we respect the UK’s sovereignty, and just as the UK sets its own conditions for opening up its market, the EU sets its own conditions for opening up its markets for goods and services. The real question is not about our reciprocal independence: the real question is what we do with our respective independence.

“Our common challenge now is as two independent entities to agree together on ground rules that makes it possible for us to cooperate, to trade and to travel.”

Giving a review of the first week’s talks, the chief negotiator said the UK was refusing to sign a commitment to stay in the European Convention on Human Rights, as well as rejecting an agreement tying it to “high standards” for labour, environmental, and state aid regulations.

“The United Kingdom informs us that they do not wish to commit formally to applying the European Convention on Human Rights,” Mr Barnier said.

On the “level playing field” for regulations, Mr Barnier said the UK said it wanted to maintain high standards, but would not legally commit to them.

“Whilst we agree on preserving high standards, my question is why not commit to them formally? It’s a question of trust,” he said.

Both sides in negotiations are keenly aware that talks, which involve between 200 and 300 officials, could be hit by the ongoing coronavirus outbreak.

Asked whether talks would definitely continue Mr Barnier said he did not want to “commit to anything”, but said “there’s no ban on meetings”.

“We’re talking maximum 200 people in one room ... We will be taking all necessary precautions so that we can continue,” he said.

A senior EU official involved in negotiations downplayed the suggestion there could be an effect: “We haven’t discussed the possible measures to take with the British. We’ll see how the situation will evolve.”

Mr Barnier said he thought the degree of change that Brexit would bring on 1 January 2021, when the transition period ends, has been “very much underestimated”. He added that the UK could still extend the transition period if it decided to – though Boris Johnson has ruled out doing so.

A senior UK source close to talks said: “We made clear to the EU throughout that the fact we’re determined to regain our independence doesn’t compromise our commitment to high standards ... that doesn’t mean we can accept a relationship that limits our freedom to legislate in those areas or that enforces the supremacy of EU law.”

Giving a similar assessment of the state of talks to Mr Barnier, the senior UK source said: “In some areas there was a common understanding of how to proceed. Areas like trade in goods, services, transport, energy, access to EU programmes – areas where there’s a well understood, well precedented framework. It was possible to have engaging conversations ... in other areas there was quite degree of disagreement: fisheries, governance, criminal justice, and the so-called level playing field.”

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