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Row over 'level playing field' is the major stumbling block to EU-UK trade talks

Fisheries is the other major stumbling block to agreeing an EU-UK trade deal.

David Frost and Michel Barnier.
David Frost and Michel Barnier.
Image: Monasse Thierry/ANDBZ/ABACA

EU NEGOTIATOR MICHEL Barnier has said that no progress has been made between the EU and UK on the issue of the level playing field provision, and fisheries also remains a major stumbling block to a post-Brexit trade deal.

The UK negotiator David Frost said something similar: “I regret however that we made very little progress towards agreement on the most significant outstanding issues between us.”

This week marks the end of the penultimate round of Brexit talks, with a final week of talks planned for 1 June. Two of the EU’s red lines in going into trade talks – the level playing field and fisheries – now are the two biggest hurdles to an agreement before the end of the year.

The UK has until 30 June to decide if it will request an extension to the transition period, where it remains in the Single Market and Custom Union, and which is due to end on 31 December.

If no trade deal is struck, trade between the UK and EU will commence under harsh WTO terms from 1 January 2021.

Frost said in a statement that agreement could be found on the topics of law enforcement, civil nuclear, and aviation, but that there were other “major obstacles”. 

“[These include] a set of novel and unbalanced proposals on the so-called ‘level playing-field’ which would bind this country to EU law or standards, or determine our domestic legal regimes, in a way that is unprecedented in Free Trade and not envisaged in the Political Declaration.”

The ‘level playing-field’ provision had been a legally binding commitment in the Withdrawal Agreement, later moved to the Political Declaration, aimed at creating a base level of standards for labour rights, the environment, tax and state aid rules.

This is so that state aid rules aren’t used by either side to boost their own companies; labour rules aren’t lowered in order to increase company profits; or environmental standards aren’t reneged upon in order to become more competitive post-Brexit.

Frost said:

As soon as the EU recognises that we will not conclude an agreement on that basis, we will be able to make progress.

On this issue, Barnier said that “Open and fair competition is not nice to have, it is a must-have”.

He added that the UK referred to precedent during negotiations, asking for a ‘Canada-style’ deal. “But in many areas, it is demanding a lot more than Canada,” he said.

The EU is looking to the future, not to the precedents of the past. Trade policy has evolved. We are no longer in the ’70s. EU trade policy must – and can – benefit sustainable development. It must protect social & environmental standards.

Fisheries is the other major stumbling block. Frost said that “the EU continues to insist on fisheries arrangements and access to UK fishing waters in a way that is incompatible with our future status as an independent coastal state”.

Barnier said that the UK-EU’s “future partnership will be shaped by the choices we make this year together. The EU will not act in haste”. 

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Screenshot 2020-05-15 at 13.20.14 Source: EBS Live

In other parts of his statement given this afternoon after talks concluded, Barnier said that senior British minister Michael Gove had written to the EU regarding “concerns about the treatment of UK citizens in the EU”. 

Both the UK and the EU have a legal obligation to implement here… citizens rights are the priority for both sides.We will also be watching closely to make sure that EU citizens don’t face any type of discrimination.

He also asked the UK to lay out its approach to fulfilling the Irish Protocol: “I would like to see that the approach would uphold the Good Friday Belfast Agreement in all its dimensions.”

Both Frost and Barnier agreed that there would need to be a change in approach before the next round of talks.

Frost said: “We very much need a change in EU approach for the next round beginning on 1 June. In order to facilitate those discussions, we intend to make public all the UK draft legal texts during next week so that the EU’s Member States and interested observers can see our approach in detail.”

And Barnier’s take was: “The next round must bring new dynamism, lets make a success of June by making the tangible progress we need. Until the very end, the EU will remain calm, firm on principles, and respectful.”

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