France’s foreign minister has warned that the UK and the EU face bitter negotiations over their future relationship in the coming months as they scramble to bridge divisions over the degree to which Britain will have to play by Brussels rules.
“I think that on trade issues and the mechanism for future relations, which we are going to start on, we are going to rip each other apart,” said Jean-Yves Le Drian at the Munich security conference. “But that is part of negotiations: everyone will defend their own interests.”
His warnings come ahead of a speech on Monday by the UK’s chief Brexit negotiator, David Frost, where he is expected to say that the chances of a deal are being undermined by Brussels’s insistence that Britain sticks to EU rules. Mr Frost, whose task force is leading on EU trade talks, will call for the EU to offer the UK a deal along the lines of those struck with countries including Canada, Japan and South Korea.
EU member states are seeking to finalise their negotiating mandate for the Brexit talks in the coming days, following meetings between ambassadors in Brussels on Friday. While they have yet to reach a full accord on the language of the mandate, the bloc is showing no intention of backing away from so-called level playing field requirements, which would reduce the UK’s scope to diverge from EU rules in key areas such as the environment, state aid and labour laws.
UK prime minister Boris Johnson argues that the EU has imposed looser requirements in trade deals with other partners such as Canada, but Brussels insists that the degree of integration between the EU and UK economies means different standards need to apply.
Thierry Breton, the EU’s single market commissioner, said in an interview with the FT that the UK is simply being asked to abide by rules it helped design when it was part of the bloc.
“They know that if they want to continue to benefit from what these rules have created, in other words, the largest single market, they know how to behave,” he said.
For their part, UK negotiators will argue that in the EU’s trade deals with Korea, Japan and Canada, they stripped away a substantial portion of EU tariffs even though the three countries are not subject to alignment requirements as strict as those being proposed for the UK.
They will also argue that UK standards in areas such as workers’ rights, the environment and health and safety already exceed those of the EU, and that the UK has a better record on subsidy control than most member states.
Mr Johnson has rejected the close alignment with EU rules favoured by his predecessor Theresa May, which he has called a “moral and intellectual humiliation” that would leave Britain copying Brussels rules.
While Mr Johnson has signalled a preference for a Canada-style deal that falls far short of the economic integration conferred by single market membership, Mr Frost is expected to say that the UK is open to pursuing the alternative model of an Australia-style deal if necessary.
Trade experts see the Australia idea as little more than a euphemism for a no-deal Brexit at the end of 2020, meaning tariffs on UK-EU trade on top of the burdensome regulatory checks at the border that are likely to be implemented even under a fully-formed trade deal.
“We have a strong mandate to get Brexit done, get a future trade deal and focus on sovereignty. This is in line with EU trade deals they have done before — and we expect the same to apply to us,” a UK Conservative source said.