Tuesday 25 February 2020 6:01 pm

Stage set for new Brexit collision as UK and EU clash over level-playing field

The stage is set for a head-on collision during the first round of trade talks between the UK and EU next week, with both sides standing firm over the level-playing field.

Brussels published its negotiating mandate this afternoon, having been signed off by the EU27 member states, reaffirming its position that the UK must agree to retain the EU’s rules in areas such as labour law, food and environmental standards.

Presenting the EU’s position, chief negotiator Michel Barnier said: “We are ready to offer a highly ambitious trade deal to the UK. But the UK cannot expect high quality access to the single market if its not prepared to accept guarantees that competition remains open and fair, free and fair.”

He added: “There must be robust level playing field, safeguards to avoid unfair advantages social, environmental, tax, and aid state matters.”

However that was rejected out of hand by Number 10, with the Prime Minister’s spokesman pointing to statements made by Boris Johnson and his sherpa David Frost, who have stressed that autonomy on these areas and others go to the heart of Brexit.

Number 10 also pointed to “precedent”, arguing that no other free trade agreement comes with such prerequisites.

The spokesman made clear that fishing was aligned with the UK’s sovereignty, and as such was viewed as a high priority within Downing Street.

“The UK didn’t vote twice to take back control of our fishing waters only to give that control up again,” he said. “As a matter of fact it doesn’t matter what the EU puts in its mandate as we become an independent coastal state on December 31 2020.

“That means we automatically take back control of our waters and others right to fish in them under the UK convention of the Law of the Sea. This does not have to be negotiated, nor will it be – any access by non-UK vessels to fish in UK waters will be for us to determine.”

He was less emphatic about where financial services stood within the government’s list of priorities however.

Although he pointed to the fact the EU had removed a commitment to conclude the assessment of equivalence by June 2020, the spokesman refused to compare the £132bn sector to fishing, which contributes £1.4bn to the UK economy.

“We are seeking an agreement in relation to financial services – you will see the precise terms of that on Thursday,” he said. “We have set out that it is an area in which we will be seeking an agreement. It’s an important part of the UK economy.”

Asked why Brussels had removed the deadline, an EU spokesman told CityA.M.: “The granting of equivalence is a unilateral measure that exists already under EU law. There is no need to be given a mandate to do so.”

Main image: Getty