EU insists Brexit must be fair, warns of cliff-edge

An EU briefing paper released this week refers 16 times to the need for a ‘level-playing field’ on rules and regulations if the UK is to have an ‘ambitious’ trade deal with the EU and refers to the ‘possibility of a cliff-edge as of January 1, 2021’ if an agreement is not reached in time.

A ‘cliff-edge’ means the UK leaving the transition period with no deal on the ‘future relationship', including trade, security cooperation and a raft of other areas where the UK currently cooperates closely with the other states as a member of the EU. However the Withdrawal Agreement (WA), including rights of Britons living abroad in the EU before the end of the transition period, would remain in place.

Matters which could be discussed in the 'future relationship' but which could be lost in a 'cliff-edge', or if there is only time for a 'bare-bones' agreement on trade, could include any arrangements for easier future immigration to the EU for Britons as compared to ordinary ‘third countries’, ‘continuing free movement’ to live and work across the EU for Britons living in the EU before Brexit, Erasmus participation, a replacement for the Ehic health card system used by travellers or the S1 system for expatriate retirees, rules on British pet passports or driving licences, and a reciprocal agreement on uprated pensions.

Another matter expected to be addressed in the transition period is a new agreement on flights between the UK and EU.

This comes as the UK government has set into law a refusal of extending the Brexit transition period beyond the end of the year, which commentators have said could mean as little as seven months for talks, assuming February is taken up by the two sides drafting their negotiation directives and that several months may be needed for drafting and ratification at the end.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has so far rejected the idea that the UK should continue to ‘align’ with EU rules and the UK has also rejected free movement from the EU saying EU citizens in future will be treated the same as anyone else from around the world. The UK wants to negotiate a Free Trade Agreement (FTA), similar to, but preferably better and more wide-ranging than, the one the EU has with Canada.

The European Commission briefing paper, setting out principles before the 27 remaining EU states discuss their aims for the future relationship, says that “a balanced, ambitious and wide-ranging trade agreement”, without tariffs and quotas, is possible, but only “insofar as there are sufficient guarantees for a level-playing field”.

This refers to issues such as environmental and safety regulations, working rights and state aid.

The paper states however that as a third country that “does not live up to the same obligations as a[n EU] member” the UK “cannot have the same rights and enjoy the same benefits as a member”.

It adds there can be no participation in certain parts of the EU single market without accepting all four freedoms (people, goods, services, capital) – such as via EEA membership – and also that one condition of an FTA is that “existing reciprocal access to fishing waters and resources should be maintained”.

The latter point is likely to prove a sticking point as many in the British fishing industry are seeking an end to the current situation where many fish in UK waters are caught by boats from other EU states (partly due to the fact that the UK chose to sell off some of its fishing quota to them).

When it comes to a FTA the EU will have only a “limited margin” to offer anything better than what it offers to other countries such as Canada, the paper says.

This is because of the nature of FTAs, which cannot be as close as single market membership, and the fact that international rules say any special concessions and privileges offered in a FTA should also be offered to all other countries it has FTAs with.

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