EU governments will make a final push this week to toughen the bloc’s negotiating position ahead of the opening of trade talks with the UK, even though British officials claim that the EU27 countries are “divided” over their stance.
The two sides, which will both formalise their negotiating objectives this week, are approaching the talks with very different visions of what that relationship should look like, with the UK emphasising its desire to break free from EU rules and Brussels warning that this will reduce the market access it can offer. On Sunday, British officials insisted that, in contrast to the EU27, Boris Johnson’s government was united in seeking a “Canada-style” free trade agreement.
Meanwhile, Emmanuel Macron, French president, was among those insisting that Britain must comply with strict “level playing field” provisions to ensure that the UK does not undercut the EU on issues like the environment, state aid and workers’ rights. “I am not sure that an agreement will be reached between now and the end of the year,” Mr Macron said at a meeting with fishermen in Paris on Saturday. “Anyway, it is going to become more tense because [the British] are very hard.”
Mr Macron said that access to British fishing grounds would be one of the potential stumbling blocks to a deal, and the thorny issue of Northern Ireland could also undermine the talks, which begin next month. Diplomats said that the main outstanding issue for the EU mandate was the regulatory demands that the bloc will attach to a tariff-free, quota-free trade deal with Britain.
Brussels’ original draft of the mandate, circulated earlier this month, said that the UK should have to stay in line with EU environmental and labour market rules as they stand at the end of this year, and that it should also have to continue applying EU restrictions on state aid. Britain has already slammed those demands as unacceptable, but Paris and other EU nations have been working over recent weeks to stiffen them, in order to make sure that the “level playing field” of common rules endures over time.
France has gone furthest in calling for UK companies to have to stay in line with EU rules as they evolve over the years to come. But EU diplomats stress that other countries also have concerns about the level playing field being too static. The diplomats noted that the EU has big plans to toughen its environmental legislation in the years ahead, and this would place new regulatory obligations on European companies.
EU governments are adamant that this must not be allowed to lead to an unfair competitive advantage for Britain groups. The latest draft of the mandate does not go as far as requiring “dynamic alignment” of environmental and labour market rules — a term implying that Britain would have to stay completely in line with future changes to EU laws. The text says that “the envisaged agreement should uphold the common high standards, and corresponding high standards over time”. It says this is needed to “ensure a sustainable and long-lasting relationship”.
The bloc is hoping that the ambassadors’ meeting will pave the way for EU affairs ministers to sign off the mandate at a meeting in Brussels on Tuesday. The British cabinet is expected to approve the UK mandate on the same day. Mr Johnson has asked a British government team led by fellow Brexiter Michael Gove to work out ways to avoid checks on goods travelling across the Irish Sea from Great Britain to Northern Ireland under the terms of the deal he struck with the EU last year.
Brussels will insist that Britain abides by the Northern Ireland protocol, which creates a border in the Irish Sea. It leaves the region operating under EU customs and single market rules with the aim of maintaining an open border on the island of Ireland. Mr Johnson has previously admitted that checks will be needed on goods travelling from Great Britain into Northern Ireland and then onwards to the EU across the border into the Republic but has also claimed that checks can be avoided.
“The UK will comply with all of its legal obligations,” Downing Street said. But those close to the discussions in London admit there is “great pressure” to find ways of minimising or avoiding checks altogether.