The UK sets out its stall for post-Brexit EU trade talks

The Canary

Boris Johnson will reveal his aims for a trade deal with the European Union ahead of talks on 2 March which are likely to expose deep divisions between the two sides.

The mandate for the talks published by the government on 27 February will stress Johnson’s priorities of ensuring the “political and economic independence” of the UK from the EU starting on 1 January 2021.

It will reject the EU’s calls for the UK to remain closely aligned with Brussels’ rules and standards to ensure a “level playing field” for competition.

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Instead, it will call for a Canada-style free trade agreement without the kind of conditions sought by Brussels.

Brexit
Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, is due to meet the PM’s Europe adviser David Frost for talks on Monday (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

The government says that other trade deals between neighbours, such as the US, Canada and Mexico, do not include the kind of “onerous commitments” specified by Brussels.

The EU’s mandate called for any agreement to use Brussels’ standards as “a reference point” over time – indicating that the UK could be expected to keep aligned with changes to the rules in future.

Johnson signed a Political Declaration with the EU in 2019, which accepted there should be “robust commitments to ensure a level playing field” on areas including state subsidies, workers’ rights and environmental standards.

But Downing Street insiders indicated he believes the mandate he won at the general election trumps the declaration, which does not have the status of a binding international treaty.

In the Tory election manifesto, Johnson promised “no political alignment” with the EU, an end to the role of the European Court of Justice and “full control” of the UK’s fishing waters.

Brussels’ chief negotiator Michel Barnier has insisted that fishing rights for EU vessels must be included in the deal or there “won’t be any agreement at all”.

A Downing Street source said: “The prime minister is working to a mandate which derives from his manifesto which set out very clear what he would be seeking in the negotiations, also set out what would not be acceptable to the UK, and that whatever happens at the end of this year, the UK will be regaining in full its political and economic independence.”

The UK’s mandate will be set out in parliament by Michael Gove, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and a key player in the Brexit process.

On the eve of the UK setting out its red lines, Barnier issued a fresh warning that the UK must accept common standards with the bloc if it wants continued preferential access to European markets.

Barnier said he accepted assurances from Johnson that he did not want to turn Britain into a deregulated “Singapore-on-Thames”.

However, he said that without agreement on a series of common “ground rules”, efforts to prevent unfair competition and to tackle the climate crisis would be undermined.

Speaking to an ESCP business school seminar in Brussels, he said: “We are ready to offer to the UK super-preferential access to our markets – a level of access that would be unprecedented for a third country.

“Is this something we can do without firm guarantees that the UK will respect the level playing field and avoid unfair competitive advantages? The answer, I’m afraid, is simple. We cannot.”

Barnier said that whatever the outcome of the trade talks, there would be checks on goods entering the EU from Britain from the beginning of 2021 when the current transition period ends.

“Of course we love ‘Made in Britain’ but we must guarantee that the goods we import from the UK – tariff and quota free – really are British.

“We cannot take the risk that the UK becomes a kind of assembly hub for goods from all over the world, allowing them to enter the single market as British goods.”

Barnier and the PM’s Europe adviser David Frost will meet in Brussels on 2 March for the first round of talks on the post-Brexit relationship, with a further session expected in London later in March.

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