Sovereignt­y first: Bri­tain lays out tough stance for EU trade talks

The Daily Star (Lebanon) - - BUSINESS - By El­iz­a­beth Piper

LON­DON: Bri­tain laid out a tough open­ing stance for fu­ture talks with the Euro­pean Union Sun­day, say­ing it would set its own agenda rather than meet­ing the bloc’s rules to en­sure fric­tion­less trade.

Af­ter of­fi­cially leav­ing the EU Fri­day, Bri­tain now must ne­go­ti­ate fu­ture trade re­la­tions with the bloc, to take ef­fect when a stand­still tran­si­tion pe­riod ex­pires at the end of the year.

Pre­mier Boris John­son’s gov­ern­ment has been quick to send Brus­sels a mes­sage be­fore trade talks be­gin in March: Brexit, for him, means sovereignt­y trumps the econ­omy.

The EU has re­peat­edly told Bri­tain the level of ac­cess to its lu­cra­tive sin­gle mar­ket will de­pend on how far Lon­don agrees to ad­here to a “level play­ing field” – short­hand for rules on en­vi­ron­men­tal stan­dards, la­bor reg­u­la­tions and state aid.

But de­spite the ap­peals of many busi­nesses for the gov­ern­ment to en­sure goods can trade across borders freely, min­is­ters have been brief­ing com­pa­nies that they should ad­just to a new fu­ture when Bri­tain will not ad­here to EU rules.

John­son, ac­cord­ing to sources close to him, has taken last year’s elec­tion, which handed him a ma­jor­ity in Par­lia­ment, as ap­proval for his pol­icy of putting Bri­tain’s right to set its own rules above the de­mands of busi­nesses. He will out­line that ap­proach in a speech Mon­day.

“We are tak­ing back con­trol of our laws, so we are not go­ing to have high align­ment with the EU, leg­isla­tive align­ment with their rules,” For­eign Min­is­ter Do­minic Raab told Sky News. “But we’ll want to co­op­er­ate and we ex­pect the EU to fol­low through on their com­mit­ment to a Canada-style free trade agree­ment.”

Af­ter more than three years of of­ten tortuous talks, John­son wants to draw a line un­der what has been an an­gry de­bate that has deep­ened di­vides across the coun­try. His aim is a trade deal al­low­ing for tar­iff and quota-free trade in goods, sim­i­lar to the terms the bloc now has in place with Canada.

Asked whether the gov­ern­ment ex­pected busi­nesses to have to pre­pare for new checks on goods at the bor­der, Raab said: “The agree­ment that we made with the EU was to avoid all of that, and I am sure they will want to live up to the un­der­tak­ings they have made just as we’d ex­pect to do the same.”

Late Satur­day, a gov­ern­ment source said if the EU would not of­fer a Canada-style trade deal, Lon­don would in­stead pur­sue a looser trade agree­ment, sim­i­lar to the bloc’s ties with Aus­tralia.

“There are only two likely out­comes in ne­go­ti­a­tion – a free trade deal like Canada or a looser ar­range­ment like Aus­tralia – and we are happy to pur­sue both,” the source said.

The EU says it will not seal a trade deal with a large, eco­nom­i­cally pow­er­ful neigh­bor with­out solid pro­vi­sions to guar­an­tee fair com­pe­ti­tion. Some Euro­pean lead­ers fear John­son could try to un­der­cut EU busi­nesses by loos­en­ing reg­u­la­tory stan­dards, some­thing he has promised not to do.

“If Great Bri­tain wants to es­tab­lish out­side the Euro­pean Union a sort of ‘Sin­ga­pore-on-Thames,’ we would be against it,” French For­eign Min­is­ter Jean-Yves Le Drian said in a joint in­ter­view with broad­cast­ers LCI and RTL and Le Fi­garo daily.

Ir­ish Prime Min­is­ter Leo Varad­kar also called on the Bri­tish gov­ern­ment not to set strict red lines, say­ing this could make an al­ready dif­fi­cult ne­go­ti­a­tion even harder.

“One thing I’d say to ev­ery­one is let’s not re­peat some of the er­rors that were made in the past two-anda-half years,” Varad­kar told the BBC. “Let’s not set such rigid red lines that makes it hard to come to an agree­ment and let’s tone down the na­tion­al­is­tic rhetoric.”

John­son’s aim is a trade deal al­low­ing for tar­iff- and quota-free trade in goods.

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