BRUSSELS: European Union member states are at loggerheads over their negotiating position in post-Brexit trade talks as French President Emmanuel Macron pushes for more demanding conditions to be imposed on Britain.
Diplomats from the EU’s 27 remaining countries had hoped to finalise their detailed “mandate” Wednesday but were unable to agree on the language calling upon Britain to stick to EU rules to prevent it becoming an unfair competitor, according to officials.
Envoys have been locked in talks for weeks as France has argued for tougher conditions on the so-called level playing field issue, in many cases to the opposition of all the bloc’s other countries that fear they ultimately risk shutting off any chance of a deal.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government has said it won’t accept any level playing field conditions if it means having no freedom to diverge from EU rules.
The mandate, which gives the EU’s negotiators a set of parameters for the talks throughout 2020, is scheduled to be signed off by the bloc’s national governments on Tuesday so that negotiations with the UK can start the following week.
The French push puts that timetable, at least for the sign-off, in some doubt, according to a diplomat.
Macron has previously taken a hard line against Britain over Brexit, first taking firm positions on terms of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU and then opposing efforts to delay the day of departure.
In both cases he eventually softened his approach, but only after first irritating his European counterparts.
Asylum seekers, standards
One of the French demands that’s alarmed their European counterparts concerns future cooperation between the EU and UK on asylum seekers, a second EU official said.
When it was an EU member, the UK could deport people seeking asylum to the first country in the bloc they entered, and in 2018 applied for this for 15% of the 37,453 asylum requests it received.
France is the only country pushing for a replacement agreement to be within the scope of the trade negotiations, according to the official who spoke on condition of anonymity because the talks are private.
There are many conditions added by countries to draft versions of the mandate that the UK reject out of hand.
One is the obligation for Britain to set up an independent body to work in cooperation with the European Commission to ensure the UK is compliant with EU rules on competition and subsidies to business, known as state aid.
The first draft of the EU’s mandate, published after the UK left the bloc Jan 31, demanded Britain not reduce standards on social and labour rights, environmental protection and fair taxation and stick to European competition and state aid rules even as they get stricter – known as dynamic alignment.
France is arguing for dynamic alignment in many more areas.