The European Commission issued yesterday a recommendation to the Council to open negotiations on a new partnership with the United Kingdom. The proposal focuses on the objectives and conditions for a free trade agreement in all sectors of the economy.
In a speech in Greenwich on the same day, British prime minister Boris Johnson, praised the benefits of free trade for the future of UK after Brexit. However, it is clear that the two sides at this stage, before the negotiations have started, do not see eye to eye on a free trade agreement.
The Commission proposal, on 33 pages, covers all areas of interest for the negotiations, including trade and economic cooperation, law enforcement and judicial cooperation in criminal matters, foreign policy, security and defense, participation in Union programmes and other thematic areas of cooperation.
A dedicated chapter on governance provides an outline for an overall governance framework covering all areas of economic and security cooperation.
“We will negotiate in good faith,” said Michel Barnier, the Commission’s Chief Negotiator, at a press briefing in Brussels (3 February). “The Commission will continue working very closely with the European Parliament and the Council. Our task will be to defend and advance the interests of our citizens and of our Union, while trying to find solutions that respect the UK’s choices.”
That said, he was concerned that the UK had not yet put in place the control and customs arrangements as regards Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK that already have been agreed. He was determined that the extent of British access to the common market was conditional on UK agreeing to a level playing field and an agreement on fisheries.
The free-trade agreement both sides have in mind is an agreement without tariffs and quotas across all gods, including agricultural and fisheries products. Because of the “unprecedented nature” of the agreement, EU conditions it on “the existence of robust provisions ensuring a level-playing field, guaranteeing competition between economic operators from both sides”.
Another EU condition is a fisheries agreement that includes provisions on access to waters.
Judging by Boris Johnson’s speech on Monday, EU does not need to worry. Referring to the “invisible hand” of Adam Smith, the principle of “competitive advantage” of David Ricardo and even “God’s diplomacy” of Richard Cobden, he emerged as a strong champion of free trade. He also listed a number of areas where UK applies higher social standards than the EU.
“We are not leaving the EU to undermine European standards, we will not engage in any kind of dumping whether commercial, or social, or environmental, and don’t just listen to what I say or what we say, look at what we do. In one field after another, Britain is far ahead,” he said.
“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. The UK will maintain the highest standards in these areas – better, in many respects, than those of the EU – without the compulsion of a treaty.”
But pinning his hopes on new free trade agreements with the Commonwealth, the US and Japan, he did not exclude that the trade negotiations with EU might fail.
“We have made our choice: we want a comprehensive free trade agreement, similar to Canada’s. But in the very unlikely event that we do not succeed, then our trade will have to be based on our existing Withdrawal Agreement with the EU,” the British prime minister said.
He was ready to consider an agreement on fisheries, “but it must reflect the fact that the UK will be an independent coastal state at the end of this year 2020, controlling our own waters. And under such an agreement, there would be annual negotiations with the EU, using the latest scientific data, ensuring that British fishing grounds are first and foremost for British boats.”
Nor does EU exclude the risk of a “no-deal” scenario at the end of this year. “As in every negotiation, the risk of not reaching an agreement is there. Regardless of whether a future partnership will be in place, all businesses need to prepare now for the end of the transition period, as the UK will no longer be in the Single Market or the Customs Union,” the Commission said.
Another stumbling stone might be the resolution of disputes. The directives foresee the establishment of a governing body for the management and implementation of the partnership. Should a question on the interpretation of Union law be raised, then the dispute should be referred to the European Court of Justice as the sole arbiter for a binding ruling. Will UK accept that?
The issue of citizens´ rights is not mentioned in the directives besides a paragraph on “mobility” which deals with visa-free travel for short-term stays for purposes such as research, study, training and youth exchanges. A Commission spokesperson told The Brussels Times that one of the reasons for Brexit in the first place was to limit the free movement of people to the UK.
“After the end of the transition period, mobility to and from the UK will be different and will happen under different rules than before when free movement rules applied. What exactly those rules will be depends on the outcome of the negotiations but our objective is to ensure reciprocity and no discrimination between EU nationals.”
“If there is to be a new agreement, it should be a visionary one which puts citizens at the heart of the negotiations,” commented Roger Casale, founder and CEO of New Europeans, an NGO campaigning for citizens´ rights after Brexit.
“The most prized achievement of European integration after 75 years of peace is freedom of movement. By introducing a Green Card for Europe as proposed by New Europeans the EU and UK would at least preserve free movement rights for those EU citizens who have already obtained settled status in the UK and for Britons who have the equivalent status in the EU.”
The other citizen issue, the right of EU citizens to vote in municipal and local elections in another country where they are residing but of which they are not nationals, is outside the scope of the negotiation directives.
This right is currently regulated in an EU directive (94/80) but is basically a national competence. According to the Commission spokesperson, it will be up to each Member State to determine whether and under what conditions UK citizens may participate in local elections as nationals of a third country.
The Brussels Times