Brussels’ chief negotiator has dismissed demands by the United Kingdom’s chief Brexit negotiator for a Canada-style trade deal, and warned British Prime Minister Boris Johnson not to break his word.
It comes after David Frost, the UK’s leader in the talks on a future partnership, said the UK will not accept the European Union’s call for “level playing field” regulation.
The UK is seeking a trade deal with the EU similar to those struck by Brussels with the likes of Canada, Japan and South Korea. These agreements remove most tariffs and the countries are not obliged to stick closely to EU rules.
Michel Barnier said a Canada-style deal was not on the table, and noted that Johnson had agreed only six months ago to stick to the EU’s state aid rules and current social and environmental regulations after the transition period.
The message from Barnier on Tuesday brought an immediate response from London. Johnson’s office accused the EU of reneging on an original offer in 2017.
When asked if Frost was right to say that agreeing to alignment in a trade deal would be undemocratic, Barnier told reporters: “Truly not. It is a sovereign decision of the EU, it is a sovereign decision of the UK to cooperate … That is what Boris Johnson wrote in the political declaration.”
Barnier said that the EU could never accept a deal on the same terms as Canada as Britain was too much of a competitive threat. “We have proposed a trade agreement with a country that has a very particular and unique close geographical proximity,” he said.
The Guardian reports that within hours of Barnier’s comments, the British government seized upon a change to the EU’s draft negotiating mandate, which sources in Downing Street suggested was an attempt to win back the Parthenon marbles for Athens.
Barnier insisted that the EU was ready to offer a good deal to the UK, but added that Britain’s geographical position meant it could not be treated in the same way as more distant countries.
“We remain ready to offer the UK an ambitious partnership: a trade agreement that includes in particular fishing, and includes a level playing field with a country that has a very particular proximity-a unique territorial and economic closeness, which is why it can’t be compared to Canada or South Korea or Japan,” he told reporters.
During a joint press conference with London Mayor Sadiq Khan in Brussels on Tuesday, former EU chief Brexit co-ordinator and MEP Guy Verhofstadt was adamant that the UK and EU do not diverge too heavily.
He warned that if the UK continues with its approach in the post-Brexit negotiations, then it would be a “hell of a job” to reach a successful outcome by the end-of-December deadline. Verhofstadt, the former prime minister of Belgium, said the UK was approaching the negotiation as if the sides were “living on two different planets”.
The UK left the EU on Jan 31, and during the transition period to Dec 31 most arrangements remain in place. Both sides have until then to negotiate a new trade deal and the terms of their future relationship-covering a wide range of areas including security cooperation, data policy, education and science.