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Barnier and Johnson clash over future EU-UK trade deal - spelling trouble ahead for Ireland

John Downing


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British Prime Minister Boris Johnson delivers his Unleashing Britain's Potential speech in the Painted Hall, Old Royal Naval College Greenwich, London, following the UK's exit from the European Union. Photo: Frank Augstein/PA Wire

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson delivers his Unleashing Britain's Potential speech in the Painted Hall, Old Royal Naval College Greenwich, London, following the UK's exit from the European Union. Photo: Frank Augstein/PA Wire

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British Prime Minister Boris Johnson delivers his Unleashing Britain's Potential speech in the Painted Hall, Old Royal Naval College Greenwich, London, following the UK's exit from the European Union. Photo: Frank Augstein/PA Wire

The good news from an Irish point of view is that the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator wants the UK to have full access to EU markets without tariffs or quotas.

The less good news is that Michel Barnier insists that, to get such unique market access, the UK must follow EU rules on product standards and also keep Brussels’ rules on things like labour, environment, tax and state aid rules. There can be no undercutting the other 27 EU states.

The really bad news for Ireland – which is not really a surprise by now – is that UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, has said he will not systematically abide by these EU standards and rules. Mr Johnson has also signalled that he would take a lesser EU-UK trade deal as the price of freedom for London to set their own rules.

That in a nutshell was how the EU and Britain opened hostilities in Brexit's next bruising chapter on Monday. We are back again with tough red lines to frame a new EU-UK relationship after Brexit.

The European Union will link any access to its market for British products directly to the access that EU boats will be given to UK waters, the bloc’s chief negotiator has said. EU negotiator Michel Barnier underscored the difficulties of the trade negotiations with Britain ahead for the rest of the year when he highlighted the small but emblematic fisheries industry, which was a key issue in the protracted Brexit process in the United Kingdom too.

At issue is Irish exports to the UK worth some €16bn per year – and especially food and drink exports worth €4.6bn. That means a risk for tens of thousands of Irish jobs, especially in vulnerable sectors like food processing.

Time is again in short supply. The post-Brexit transition period, during which nothing changes, runs out on December 31. Mr Johnson said he definitely does want to extend it to allow more time for talks and he has stitched that “no-extension provision” into the Brexit legislation.

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European Union chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier talks to journalists during a news conference at the European Commission headquarters in Brussels, Monday, Feb. 3, 2020. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)

European Union chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier talks to journalists during a news conference at the European Commission headquarters in Brussels, Monday, Feb. 3, 2020. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)

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Speaking in Brussels, Europe’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, formally announced his ideas for the new relationship. He offered London a deep future relationship as long as Britain makes guarantees to trade fairly.

The former French minister said fisheries and fair trade would be his top priorities. Brussels diplomats said up to 11 months of talks will have a special focus on denying Britain "unfair competitive advantages".

"We are ready to offer a highly ambitious trade deal as the central pillar of this partnership, including zero tariffs," Mr Barnier told a news conference in Brussels.

"We must now agree on specific and effective guarantees to ensure a level-playing-field over the long term," he continued.

"That means a mechanism to uphold the high standards we have on social, environmental, climate, tax and state aid matters today and in their future developments," Mr Barnier added.

But Mr Barnier's vision instantly clash with that of Mr Johnson. He insisted that Britain's alignment with EU rules and regulations defies the spirit of Brexit and has to go.

Speaking in London a short time later to ambassadors and business people, Prime Minister Johnson said that the choice was either a Canada or Australia-style agreement. That would fall short of full EU market access and would spell trouble for Ireland.

"There is no need for a free trade agreement to involve accepting EU rules on competition policy, subsidies, social protection, the environment or anything similar, any more than the EU should be obliged to accept UK rules," Mr Johnson said.

"Are we going to insist that the EU does everything that we do as the price of free trade? Are we? Of course not,” he added.

"We want a comprehensive free trade agreement similar to Canada's but in the unlikely event that we do not succeed then our trade will have to be based on our existing withdrawal agreement with the EU," Mr Johnson continued.

Online Editors