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EU negotiator Michel Barnier
Image: DW/B. Riegert

EU, UK begin post-Brexit poker on trade talks

February 3, 2020

Three days after Brexit, the differences between the EU and the UK are again pronounced. The issue of free trade remains difficult as one side insists on rules, the other rejects them. Bernd Riegert from Brussels.


The fact that the European Union will insist on a level playing field in its future relations with the United Kingdom should come as "no surprise" to the UK, said the EU's chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, in Brussels.

Barnier, who presented his negotiating mandate, recommended British Prime Minister Boris Johnson take a look at the EU-UK joint political declaration of October 2019. Article 17 states that both sides will strive for a fair trading relationship based on the same rules — the level playing field.

The closer the British government adheres to bloc rules, the closer the economic relationship could be, Barnier said. If Britain wanted to say goodbye to the EU internal market and its rules, and to the customs union, it's their choice, he added. He said that the negotiations on a free trade agreement that are due to start in a few weeks' time are apparently not about moving closer together, but about moving further apart. "In future, Britain cannot be as close as it was as a member of the EU," Barnier said in Brussels.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson
British PM Johnson has insisted on playing hardball while asking for softball responses from Brussels on tradeImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/F. Augstein

Johnson refuses hard and fast rules

At almost the same time, the British prime minister stepped up to the podium in London and outlined his negotiation strategy to business and media representatives. Johnson rejected EU demands for equal, contractually agreed rules in economic relations. There is no need for such a treaty, Johnson argued, because the UK is better than the EU in the areas of environmental protection, product safety and labor law anyway. "We do not need a new treaty," Johnson said. The prime minister instead wants a free trade treaty along the lines of the CETA free trade agreement signed by the EU and Canada. However, CETA also indicates equal rules in many economic sectors.

The EU Commission has pointed out that the agreement with Canada does not include banking and financial services — services that account for about 80% of British exports to the EU. "Passporting," the automatic recognition of British financial products in all EU states, would no longer exist. The effects on the London financial hub are up in the air.

"I don't want doomsday scenarios," the prime minister told a reporter, insisting that the UK economy is thriving and will continue to do so. Johnson recalled the roots of British society as a great maritime nation, making parallels to "a great journey" the kingdom is now embarking upon.

Read more: A divided UK enters a new era

Hard Brexit still a possibility

Meanwhile in Brussels, EU negotiator Barnier drew attention to December 31, which he said is still a huge "hurdle." If no agreement is reached with the UK by the end of the year, that is the end of the transition period, customs duties will be levied and controls will be introduced beginning in 2021. The EU believes the time for negotiations is extremely short. According to an initial timetable presented by Barnier, only two major rounds of negotiations are planned. The results are expected in October, to be written up as contracts and approved by the various bodies in the EU in good time before the end of the year.

In addition to a free trade agreement, the EU also seeks an agreement on future cooperation in foreign and security policy so police authorities and secret services can continue to cooperate and exchange data. The EU and Britain should also continue to cooperate on sanctions against Russia, Iran or other states. In his speech in London, the British prime minister also spoke in favor of foreign policy cooperation.

A fish market in Peterhead, UK
Brussels and London will attempt to hammer out a fisheries agreement by summerImage: picture-alliance/dpa/C. Meyer

Fisheries accord

By the summer, the parties hope to negotiate a fisheries accord aimed at regulating access to British waters from 2021 onwards. French, Belgian and Dutch fisheries want to continue to be able to cast their nets in the fish-rich waters around the British Isles. Prime Minister Johnson, however, wants to give British fishing boats priority and "control" over the country's coastal waters.

So far, British fisheries mainly sell their catch in the EU — access to markets would thus be crucial in the future. In terms of volume, fishing is rather insignificant in the trade relations between the EU and Britain, but from a political point of view, the issue is highly explosive, according to the European Commission. France, for instance, is likely to pay close attention to how the British government will act in the matter.

Read more: 'I'll miss their pragmatism,' says EU's von der Leyen of departing UK

Negotiations in March

The first round of negotiations between the 27 EU states and ex-member Britain is scheduled to start in early March.

"We want to remain partners and negotiate in good faith and transparently," Barnier said. Unlike other trade negotiations, all documents concerning the progress of the negotiations with the UK are to be constantly published. Shortly before Brexit on Friday, EU Commission President Ursula von Leyen told DW the EU was prepared for a failure of the free trade negotiations. "We are in a strong starting position," she said.

Riegert Bernd Kommentarbild App
Bernd Riegert Senior European correspondent in Brussels with a focus on people and politics in the European Union
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