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UK and EU kick off ‘nasty’ trade negotiations amid fishing row

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The Brexit countdown is back on today as the UK and the EU kick off trade talks amid bitter wrangling over whether fishing and security should be on the table.  

The PM’s negotiations chief David Frost and his 100-strong team are due in Brussels with just nine months to finalise new arrangements with the EU.

But the two sides have very different visions of the pact that could emerge. The EU wants a comprehensive deal that covers fishing and security, while the UK is fixed on looser Canada-style arrangements that would mean zero tariffs, with separate agreements for other issues. 

Trade Secretary Liz Truss hit back this morning at warnings from France that the negotiations will get ‘nasty’ unless access is granted for the EU fleet to British waters. Whitehall officials have raised fears that French fishermen could launch a ‘nightmare’ blockade of Channel ports if they do not get what they want.

Ms Truss told BBC Breakfast: ‘We are not going to trade away our fishing in a deal with the EU or any other negotiating partner. 

David Frost

David Frost

Michel Barnier

Michel Barnier

The UK’s David Frost (left in Brussels today) is kicking off negotiations with Michel Barnier

Boris Johnson (pictured in Downing Street last week) has warned that the end of the 'standstill' post-Brexit transition period will not be delayed past December 31

Boris Johnson (pictured in Downing Street last week) has warned that the end of the 'standstill' post-Brexit transition period will not be delayed past December 31

Boris Johnson (pictured in Downing Street last week) has warned that the end of the ‘standstill’ post-Brexit transition period will not be delayed past December 31 

‘We are going to get a deal with the EU that does not involve selling out our fishing.’

Both sides published their negotiating mandates last week, underlining the gulf in their aims. 

Fears over French fishing blockade of Channel ports 

Fears have been raised that French fishermen could launch a ‘nightmare’ blockade of Channel ports if they do not get what they want. 

According to The Times, Whitehall officials told ministers last year that there was a ‘very realistic chance’ cross-Channel ports would be blockaded by EU fishing fleets if no deal on access to waters is reached. 

The threat was first raised with ministers last year at the government’s No Deal planning meetings and reportedly a serious concern. 

‘We are uniquely vulnerable when it comes to moving goods across the short straits,’ one Whitehall source said. 

‘In the event of the blockade there is very little we could do.’ 

The EU’s Michel Barnier has said a deal like Canada’s, which would eliminate most import taxes but still require some border checks, was not suitable for Britain due to its close proximity and links to the continent.

Instead, he wants the UK to agree to sign up to a level-playing rules set by Brussels.

The bloc is also arguing for little to change in terms of fishing quotas and access to British waters for European boats – a continuation of the status quo that ministers in Westminster are vehemently against.

French Europe minister Amelie de Montchalin warned the Prime Minister yesterday that negotiations could be halted if there is no agreement on fishing.’

‘We said that there are four topics which are linked in negotiations. On fish and other topics, we play it with emotion, with drama, with passion, with symbols – and we know how to make it a very, I think, nasty battle [on] both sides,’ she told the BBC’s Andrew Marr programme.

‘A very nasty battle where politicians in the UK, politicians in France are put in the situation where things get very difficult. And at the end we will both lose.’

Ms de Montchalin said the tight deadline of December 31, when the ‘standstill’ post-Brexit transition period is due to end, would not force the EU 27 into agreeing bad terms.

Mr Frost (left) was accompanied by UK ambassador Sir Tim Barrow as he arrived at the European Parliament today

Mr Frost (left) was accompanied by UK ambassador Sir Tim Barrow as he arrived at the European Parliament today

Mr Frost (left) was accompanied by UK ambassador Sir Tim Barrow as he arrived at the European Parliament today

‘If we need six more months we, as Europeans, are very clear that we want a good deal, a fair deal, a deal that can last for many generations to come, and we will not sign for the sake of having a deal. It would make no sense,’ she said.

Key sticking points in EU trade talks 

Level playing field 

The UK insists it wants an off-the-shelf free trade agreement, similar to that the EU struck with Canada.

This would mean shunning almost all tariffs and quotas, and potentially bolting on preferential access for financial services.

Crucially, it would not involve the UK aligning with EU rules or obeying legal edicts from the bloc’s judges. 

However, Michel Barnier has said the Canada model is not appropriate as the UK is geographically closer to the EU and the competition issues are different. 

He insists that there must be a ‘level playing field’ for trade, with the UK following Brussels’ standards. 

Fishing

The EU is determined to keep access to UK waters after December 31. 

France is particularly keen to ensure that its fishermen have generous quotas when Britain leaves the EU Commons Fisheries arrangements. 

But Boris Johnson has said: ‘British fishing grounds are first and foremost for British boats.’

Food standards 

Mr Johnson and Donald Trump have vowed to push for a quick Transatlantic trade deal.

However, the US is likely to demand concessions on better access to lucrative UK food markets in return for good terms in other areas.

The EU is trying to thwart the discussions by insisting the UK must stay tied to its food standards rules. 

The Elgin Marbles 

The EU negotiation mandate includes a stipulation Britain should ‘return unlawfully removed cultural objects to their countries of origin’.

The passage is thought to refer to the Elgin Marbles, ancient Greek sculptures taken to Britain more than 200 years ago and now on display in the British Museum.

Greece has been vocal about demanding the marble sculptures, once situated in the ancient Greek Parthenon temple, are returned to Athens.

Downing Street has insisted the future of the marbles is ‘not up for discussion as part of our trade negotiations’.

According to The Times, Whitehall officials told ministers last year that there was a ‘very realistic chance’ cross-Channel ports would be blockaded by EU fishing fleets if no deal on access to waters is reached. 

The threat was first raised with ministers last year at the government’s No Deal planning meetings and reportedly a serious concern. 

‘We are uniquely vulnerable when it comes to moving goods across the short straits,’ one Whitehall source said. ‘In the event of the blockade there is very little we could do.’ 

A high-level meeting to take stock of progress in the negotiations is scheduled for June, by which time it should be clear whether the Canada-like agreement sought by Mr Johnson is possible by the end of the year.

The EU wants to see progress on both fishing and financial services at that summer marker.

Michael Gove, the Cabinet minister responsible for Brexit preparations, said the UK would not ‘trade away’ its ‘newly recovered sovereignty’ during the talks.

‘Our aim is to secure, through a fair and measured approach, a comprehensive free trade agreement, and also find common ground on questions such as fisheries, internal security and aviation,’ said the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster in an article on Sunday.

‘I believe we can secure a great new deal for an exciting new era.

‘But it is important that we are clear from the start that these negotiations are taking place in new times.

‘Yes, we want the best possible trading relationship with the EU. But we will not trade away our newly recovered sovereignty.’ 

The outbreak of coronavirus is said to be complicating cross-Channel relations as negotiators prepare to start bartering.

The Telegraph reported that Downing Street and the Department of Health and Social Care are involved in a stand-off over whether Britain should retain membership of an EU pandemic warning system used to stem the Sars and bird flu outbreak.

According to the newspaper, No 10 fears continued membership of the Early Warning and Response System (EWRS) could hamper trade negotiations.

As a result, Downing Street is said to have prevented Health Secretary Matt Hancock from travelling to meet counterparts to coordinate a Europe-wide response to the coronavirus outbreak.

The Liberal Democrats have called for the trade talks to be postponed and the deadline to be extended to allow ministers to focus on stopping coronavirus.

Acting leader Sir Ed Davey said: ‘Then the NHS and local communities can get the funds and the focus they deserve, and the UK can talk to our European neighbours about how we can cooperate against the coronavirus which does not recognise national borders.’ 

The UK’s stance 

Full UK control over key areas including state aid, workers’ rights, environmental standards and fishing rights. 

‘Regulatory freedom’ outside the jurisdiction of the European  Court of Justice (ECJ)

Full ‘liberalised market access for trade in goods’ with ‘no tariffs, fees, charges and quantitative restrictions on trade in manufactured and agricultural goods’.

On fishing, document sets out that UK wants ‘annual negotiations on access to the parties’ exclusive economic zones and fishing opportunities’

An agreement on ‘equivalence’ in the financial services sector  by June

The EU’s demands 

Rules on fishing rights to continue unchanged after the transition ends.

‘Level playing field’ provisions to block any reduction in ‘common standards’ that currently exist in areas such as the environment.

Rules would need to be maintained in the area of ‘health and product sanitary quality in the agricultural and food sector’ – a clear jibe at the UK’s hopes of a US trade deal. 

Britain must follow a swathe of EU rules and accept legal oversight by the bloc’s judges. 

The mandate includes a thinly-veiled reference to the dispute over the Elgin Marbles, which Greece has long said should be returned. 

Trade Secretary Liz Truss hit back this morning at warnings from France that the negotiations will get 'nasty' unless access is granted for the EU fleet to British waters

Trade Secretary Liz Truss hit back this morning at warnings from France that the negotiations will get 'nasty' unless access is granted for the EU fleet to British waters

Trade Secretary Liz Truss hit back this morning at warnings from France that the negotiations will get ‘nasty’ unless access is granted for the EU fleet to British waters

Amelie de Montchalin (pictured on the BBC's Andrew Marr show yesterday) said that an agreement between London and Brussels hinged on four factors, with a failure of any one able to kibosh chances of a deal

Amelie de Montchalin (pictured on the BBC's Andrew Marr show yesterday) said that an agreement between London and Brussels hinged on four factors, with a failure of any one able to kibosh chances of a deal

Amelie de Montchalin (pictured on the BBC’s Andrew Marr show yesterday) said that an agreement between London and Brussels hinged on four factors, with a failure of any one able to kibosh chances of a deal

 

 

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