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Britain’s vision for EU trade deal prompts claims of cherry picking

Boris Johnson on Tuesday set out full legal details of the “Canada-style” free trade agreement he wants to strike with the EU, but experts said the texts only proved that his demands went well beyond any deal previously agreed by Brussels.

Mr Johnson is not expected to launch a diplomatic effort to unblock the stalled EU trade talks until after the next round of negotiations, starting on June 1, but in the meantime he tried to create some momentum by setting out in legal detail exactly what Britain wants.

The legal texts elaborate on the broad objectives for the future UK/EU relationship set out by Mr Johnson in February, which is supposed to be in place before the end of this year. Despite the coronavirus pandemic, the UK has repeatedly said it will not take up the option to extend the transition period beyond 2020.

Global trade analysts said the details published by the UK confirmed what Brussels has been saying for weeks: that the deal sought by Britain includes attempts to “cherry pick” parts of the EU single market, which the UK formally exits on December 31.

Michel Barnier, chief EU negotiator, said last week: ‘To make progress in this negotiation — if it is still the UK’s intention to strike a deal with the EU — the UK will have to be more realistic’ © Francois Lenoir/EPA

Michael Gove, cabinet office minister, said the talks with Brussels were stalled because Michel Barnier, chief EU negotiator, was taking an “ideological approach”, including demanding “level playing field” provisions to stop the UK undercutting European social, tax and environmental standards as well as rules on state aid.

Mr Gove and Mr Johnson have repeatedly claimed that Britain wants nothing more than the kind of free trade agreement the EU has already negotiated with countries such as Canada, Japan or South Korea.

In a letter to Mr Barnier, dated May 19 and released by the UK on Tuesday, David Frost, the UK’s chief negotiator, insisted Britain’s proposed trade deal “approximates very closely those the EU has agreed with Canada or Japan”.

Mr Frost accused Brussels of having an incoherent stance in the negotiations, saying its position was “perplexing”.

“We find it surprising that the EU not only insists on additional provisions, but is also not willing even to replicate provisions in previous FTAs,” he wrote.

“Overall, we find it hard to see what makes the UK, uniquely among your trading partners, so unworthy of being offered the kind of well-precedented arrangements commonplace in modern FTAs.”

He reiterated Britain’s firm opposition to the EU’s level playing field demands, saying a “particularly egregious example” was Brussels’ requirement that Britain continue to adhere to EU state-aid rules.

But trade experts poring over the 12 separate negotiating texts produced by the UK — and formally shared with EU capitals for the first time — said the British demands were “ambitious” and outside the scope of a traditional FTA.

David Henig, director of the UK trade policy project and a former trade negotiator, said: “[The UK is] looking for more than Canada, Korea or Japan in exchange for the same — or probably even less — in terms of level playing field provisions.”

The decision to publish the documents came after weeks in which the UK had ordered Mr Barnier not to share draft texts with EU member states, causing growing frustration in EU capitals. 

Talks between the two sides are deadlocked on the question of the level playing field, with Brussels insisting that if Britain wants privileged access to the single market after Brexit it must be prevented from undercutting the EU social and environmental model.

A separate dispute concerns EU demands for continued access to British fishing waters on similar terms to now, while London objects to any role for the European Court of Justice in enforcing any eventual deal.

Mr Barnier said last week: “To make progress in this negotiation — if it is still the UK’s intention to strike a deal with the EU — the UK will have to be more realistic.” He added: “It will have to change strategy. You cannot have the best of both worlds.”

EU officials also say British attempts to agree mutual recognition deals for professional qualifications — for lawyers in particular — and for industrial products reflected London’s attempt to keep the same access to the single market.

“The British request to have British qualifications recognised by default, subject to terms and conditions, goes far beyond the EU-Japan deal, or the Ceta deal with Canada,” said Sam Lowe of the Centre for European Reform.

“This is not necessarily impossible but it is not the kind of things the EU hands readily in its free trade agreements.”

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