Brussels (AFP) – The EU and Britain opened hostilities in Brexit’s next bruising chapter on Monday, laying down tough red lines for a post-divorce future following the UK’s dramatic exit from the bloc.
Europe’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier formally announced his ideas for new ties in Brussels, offering London a deep relationship going forward as long as Britain makes guarantees to trade fairly.
The former French minister said fisheries and fair trade would be his top priorities in the 11 months of talks, with a special focus on denying Britain “unfair competitive advantages”.
But Barnier’s vision will fly in the face of that of Johnson, who insists that Britain’s alignment with Europeans on rules and regulations defies the spirit of Brexit and is a thing of the past.
“We are ready to offer a highly ambitious trade deal as the central pillar of this partnership, including zero tariffs,” Barnier told a news conference in Brussels.
“We must now agree on specific and effective guarantees to ensure a level-playing-field over the long term,” he said.
“That means a mechanism to uphold the high standards we have on social, environmental, climate, tax and state aid matters today and in their future developments,” he said.
– ‘Better’ than EU –
According to the prime minister’s office, Johnson will hit back hard against the EU in a speech in London, saying that Britain has no more reason to meet EU standards than the EU has to meet British ones.
“There is no need for a free trade agreement to involve accepting EU rules on competition policy, subsidies, social protection, the environment, or anything similar,” Johnson will say, according to Downing Street.
“The UK will maintain the highest standards in these areas –- better, in many respects, than those of the EU –- without the compulsion of a treaty and it is vital to stress this now.”
Both sides will have until the end of the year to reconcile their positions, with Johnson flatly refusing to extend the negotiating period beyond December 31.
Until then, Britain has agreed to abide by the rules of EU membership, but failing a deal, the two sides would resort to the most basic of relationships with border checks and high tariffs causing big shocks to the cross-channel economy.
Johnson, a polarising figure accused of glossing over the complexity of leaving the EU, is in a rush to seal an agreement and deliver the “independence” promised by Brexiteers, following Britain’s exit on January 31.
This would also open the way for Britain to seal more ambitious trade deals across the globe, most notably with the United States.
– ‘Play by the rules’ –
Brussels has repeatedly warned Britain that the depth of future trade ties will depend on how closely London adheres to EU standards — what is known as maintaining the level playing field.
“The closer the UK wants to be, the easier the access to the single market. But nothing comes for free,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen told reporters.
“It’s of utmost importance, and therefore I think it’s only a matter of fairness to also play by the rules,” she said.
Britain has asked for the EU’s trade deal with Canada to be used as a model, which Europeans consider acceptable on tariffs and quotas, but too weak on provisions to guarantee fair trade.
Barring that Johnson said that Britain would be happy to match the EU’s current ties with far-away Australia, which include tariffs, quotas and some basic cooperation on product safety.
“Going for an Australia model is totally absurd if you look at how tightly intertwined the value and production chains are,” Bernd Lange, an influential MEP who chairs the European Parliament’s trade committee, told AFP.
– ‘Nationalistic rhetoric’ –
In a sign of the tensions, Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar urged London on Sunday to “tone down” what he called “nationalistic rhetoric”.
Britain should avoid repeating the past mistake of insisting on “rigid red lines” which “makes it hard to come to an agreement”, he said.
Barnier’s negotiating mandate will be discussed and approved by the EU’s 27 member states later this month with direct trade talks with London to begin in early March.