Tuesday 25 February 2020 1:34 pm

EU keeps demands on level-playing field as it publishes mandate ahead of trade talks

The EU has stressed there must be no reduction in “common” standards on food, environment and labour laws as it publishes its negotiating mandate for the second stage of Brexit.

The mandate, published after being signed off by the EU 27, says a deal will be dependent on both sides agreeing to maintain the level playing field – something which Downing Street has already ruled out.

The mandate says: “Given the union and the United Kingdom’s geographic proximity and economic interdependence, the envisaged partnership must ensure open and fair competition, encompassing robust commitments to ensure a level playing field. These commitments should be commensurate with the scope and depth of the overall envisaged partnership and the economic connectedness of the parties.

“These commitments should prevent distortions of trade and unfair competitive advantages so as to ensure a sustainable and long-lasting relationship between the Parties.”

That includes state aid, competition, state-owned enterprises, social and employment standards, environmental standards, climate change, relevant tax matters and other regulatory measures and practices in these areas.

One of the key areas of focus is the EU’s insistence that both sides maintain “health and product sanitary quality in the food and agriculture sector”.

Brussels is concerned that the UK will break away from it on food standards, with Downing Street poised to take a stance as early as next month’s WTO meeting, as revealed by City A.M. last week.

It is unlikely to be made explicit in the UK’s negotiating mandate, which will be published on Thursday having been signed off by the government’s XS committee of senior Cabinet ministers today. Talks are due to begin in Brussels next week, with a further round set to take place in London at the end of March. This will be the first time Brexit negotiations will take place on home turf.

French Europe minister Amelie de Montchaline today told reporters: “We will not give in just because of the timing. We will protect the interests of Europeans and we want to be very clear and strong about the route that we want to follow.”

She added: “The UK is a sovereign country. Brexit is certainly a big change.”

“They can choose their own rules freely. Everything that happens in the UK depends on them. But when products leave the UK and want to enter the EU, it’s up to us to decide.”

It is not only the EU that is concerned about a possible break away from the EU’s position on food standards.

Speaking today at the National Farmers’ Union conference, president Minette Batters said: “We must not allow UK farm high standards to be undermined by imports of goods which would be illegal for our farmers to produce here”.

She added: “To sign up a trade deal which opens our fridges to food which would be illegal to produce here would be morally bankrupt.”