EU sets goalposts for next round Brexit talks

epa08246970 Michel Barnier, the European Commission's Head of Task Force for Relations with the United Kingdom, gives a press conference after a General Affairs Council at the European Council in Brussels, Belgium, 25 February 2020. EU member state ministers hav agreed on a trade talks mandate with the UK. EPA-EFE/STEPHANIE LECOCQ

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Negotiations over Britain’s future relationship with the EU appear on course for an acrimonious start after Michel Barnier poured scorn on Boris Johnson’s spokesman and suggested the new Northern Ireland secretary did not understand the withdrawal agreement, The Guardian reports.

Barnier said he expected the talks, starting on Monday, to be “very difficult” but pronounced Brussels as “ready” following the official sign-off by EU ministers of their instructions for their chief negotiator.

“In an impassioned press conference during which he repeatedly banged on his lectern for emphasis, Barnier said the UK’s implementation of the agreement for avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland was a prerequisite for any trade deal”, the Guardian adds.

Financial Times reports that Michel Barnier warned Britain “not to go backwards when we should be going forwards,” insisting the UK should not be surprised by EU demands that any trade deal is underpinned by common rules in areas such as environmental policy and state aid. Speaking after EU ministers adopted their negotiating mandate for the talks, Mr Barnier said the requirements were already set out in a political declaration on future relations that Britain signed up to as part of the Withdrawal Agreement “less than six months ago”.

The Telegraph explains that the European Union has agreed its mandate for talks on its future relationship with the UK, setting out “red lines” for negotiations which open in Brussels next Monday.

The 46-page document covers the broad sweep of future EU-UK relations, from fishing rights to financial services and labour mobility to the “level playing field” the bloc demands as the price of a trade deal.

On trade, the EU says it is aiming for a deal that creates a free trade area with no tariffs or “quantitative restrictions” limiting the amount of goods that can enter the EU single market tariff free. But that comes with a major caveat. The EU will only offer a zero-tariff, zero-quota deal “provided that a level playing field is ensured”, meaning British companies cannot undercut European companies unfairly.

A new EU demand, added at the request of France, is that the “level playing field” should include “product sanitary quality in the agricultural and food sector”. This is saying that the EU will not do a full trade deal with the UK unless the Government commits to not lowering standards on, for example, battery chicken farming, pesticide usage or other techniques that might cheapen UK food production and undercut EU standards.

As part of the “divorce deal”, the UK agreed a £39 billion Brexit bill, guaranteed the rights of EU citizens and put forward a Northern Ireland “frontstop” that leaves the province following EU rules on customs, state aid and VAT and requires a customs border to be created in the Irish Sea. The EU mandate notes that any EU-UK trade deal is premised on the “effective implementation” of those protocols – but there are already concerns in Brussels that the UK will backslide on the creation of the customs border.

Brexit will turn the UK into an independent coastal state and remove it from the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy, leading to promises from UK ministers that British fishermen will get “hundreds of thousands of tonnes” more fish to catch.

But the EU mandate – toughened by member states with fishing interests – says any deal must uphold EU fishing activities, including access to UK waters and quota shares, unless both sides agree to change them. Both sides cannot be right.

One possible way in which the EU might relax its “level playing field” demand is the agreement of a dispute resolution mechanism which reassures Brussels that the bloc can protect itself against any British attempts to unfairly undercut its businesses.

The mandate posits an “overall governance mechanism” that will sit above the multiple strands of the future relationship – from trade to defence, security and all other aspects – and enable both sides to take quick retaliatory measures against each other.

Report based on The Telegraph / The Guardian / Financial Times 

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