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Opening shots tell us just how hard this bruising battle will become

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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)

AP

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)

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 Michel Barnier insists that, to get such unique market access, the UK must follow EU product standards and keep Brussels' rules on 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 a surprise - is that UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said he will not systematically abide by these EU standards and rules. Mr Johnson also signalled that he would take a lesser EU-UK trade deal as the price for that.

That in a nutshell was how the EU and Britain opened Brexit's next bruising chapter yesterday. We are back with tough red lines framing a new EU-UK relationship.

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 sectors like food processing.

Time is again in short supply. The post-Brexit transition period ends on December 31. Mr Johnson said he definitely does not want an extension and he has stitched that "no-extension provision" into the Brexit legislation.

Speaking in Brussels, Barnier offered London a deep future relationship as long as Britain makes guarantees to trade fairly. He 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. We must now agree on specific and effective guarantees to ensure a level playing field over the long term," Mr Barnier told a news conference in Brussels.

But Mr Barnier's vision instantly clashed with that of Mr Johnson. He insisted 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, he 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."

Hard bargaining lies ahead.

Irish Independent