'Very serious' clashes between UK and EU

There are already ‘very serious’ clashes in objectives between the UK and EU following the first days of future relationship talks, says the EU’s chief negotiator.

Eleven teams have been negotiating simultaneously this week on different topics and EU negotiator Michel Barnier has said they have identified common ground on certain areas such as cooperation on civil nuclear power and continued participation of the UK in certain EU programmes.

However he said there are many areas where the two sides disagree.

One is the UK’s reluctance to accept ‘level playing-field’ rules requiring it to continue to accept EU standards on matters like worker rights, environmental protection and state aid to business. The EU fears that without this the UK would become an ‘unfair competitor’ on its doorstep.

Other clashes include the UK’s refusal to give a commitment to continuing to respect the European Convention on Human Rights or matters surrounding the future role of the European Court of Justice.

Mr Barnier, in a speech after this week's first round, also said the EU is frustrated by the UK’s preference to have many different mini deals on different sectors as opposed to one overall deal.

This includes the fact that the EU wants agreement on fishing rights to be an integral part of the main deal, whereas the UK wants it to be separate and to renegotiate fishing rights annually, which Mr Barnier said is “absolutely impractical”.

He said: "The UK has spent a lot of time this week insisting on its independence. Nobody contests the UK's independence.

"And we ask the UK to respect our own independence.

"Just as the UK sets its own conditions for opening up its market, the EU sets its own conditions for opening its markets for goods and services."

Mr Barnier added however that UK chief negotiator David Frost this week assured him that the UK will respect all its commitments with regard to the Withdrawal Agreement, which Mr Barnier said is essential to create an atmosphere of mutual confidence on which to build the future relationship.

He said monitoring the good application of the WA deal, including the rights of Britons in the EU and EU citizens in the UK, is important in parallel with negotiation the future relationship deal.

The two sides met in Brussels this week from Monday to Thursday, but with the detailed talks taking place on Tuesday and Wednesday. The next round will be in London from March 18.

Continuing lifetime rights of Britons who are living abroad in the EU before the end of the Brexit transition period – currently expected to be December 31 – are dealt with in the WA deal, which is now an international treaty and is not dependent on the outcome of the current talks (see this previous article for more about the WA).

The current talks include for example trade and fishing and security, however some important issues related to Britons’ rights, especially for visitors and second home owners and Britons wanting to move to France after the transition period (but also eg. young people on both sides of the Channel interested in future Erasmus university exchanges), are also supposed to be addressed.

There is a risk these talks could fail and that the UK could leave with no ‘future relationship’ deal if the two sides do not rapidly agree on compromise positions, and if there is no extension to the transition period.

If that happened the UK would leave the EU’s single market and customs union on basic ‘World Trade Organization’ trading terms on January 1, 2021 and there could be lorry queues at ports and disruption and confusion regarding many current areas of cooperation. However in that worst-case scenario the WA would still remain in place.

The UK will also, whatever happens in the future relationship talks, after the transition period be leaving many international agreements with non-EU countries that it still currently benefits from via the EU. It is seeking to renegotiate some of these in parallel with talks with the EU.

  • See here for more about key issues in the future relationship talks that have a bearing on rights and opportunities of Britons such as those visiting or coming to live in France after the transition period.

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