MEPs to greenlight UK trade talks, von der Leyen baffled by ‘Australia’ comparison

MEPs are expected on Wednesday to green light EU plans to open talks on a post-Brexit partnership with the UK but warned that it will come with strings attached. [EPA-EFE/Simon Dawson]

EU lawmakers are expected to greenlight on Wednesday (12 February) EU plans to open talks on a post-Brexit partnership with the UK but warned that it will come with strings attached.

MEPs will adopt their own position on the EU’s negotiating mandate on Wednesday. Although they cannot shape the mandate – which must be decided by national governments – the Parliament will be required to give its approval to any agreement brokered between the EU and UK.

But the resolution raises plenty of warning flags about the likely thorny issues in the negotiations.

Addressing the plenary in Strasbourg on Tuesday, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen again repeated the EU’s mantra that, in exchange for an ambitious tariff and quota-free trade deal, the EU “would require corresponding guarantees”.

But they warned that pre-conditions for such a deal would include the UK agreeing to the so-called ‘level playing field’ of matching EU rules on social, labour and environmental protection and state aid.

The resolution states that the UK should continue to maintain “dynamic alignment of legislation and policies” with the EU.

On fisheries, the resolution said that “the issue of free access to waters and ports is inseparable from the issue of free trade and access of UK fisheries products to the EU market”, adding that “continued reciprocal access to waters” should be included in any agreement.

MEPs warned that the UK’s data retention laws do not currently meet the conditions for the Commission to grant an adequacy agreement to allow the continuation of data flows between the EU and UK, potentially putting a risk a multi-billion euro industry.

European Commission has previously stated that the assessment for an adequacy agreement between the UK and the EU will begin on 1 February.

Talks on a future EU-UK trade agreement are expected to start in early March. Last week, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the UK government planned measures to take “full sovereign controls over our borders, immigration, competition, subsidy rules, procurement, and data protection.”

Johnson also played down the threat of a ‘no deal’ scenario after December 2020 when the eleven-month Brexit transition is due to end, stating that future EU-UK trade would be on the basis of the EU’s terms with Canada or Australia.

That comparison drew a surprised reaction from von der Leyen, who pointed out that the EU does not currently have a free trade pact with Australia.

“Australia without any doubt is a strong and a like-minded partner,” von der Leyen told MEPs.

“But the European Union does not have a trade agreement with Australia. We are currently trading on WTO terms. And if this is the British choice, well, we are fine with that without any question. But, in fact, we just are in the moment where we are agreeing with Australia that we must end this situation and we work on a trade deal with them.”

“Of course the United Kingdom can decide to settle for less but I personally believe we should be way more ambitious,” von der Leyen said.

But she struck an optimistic note about the UK talks, welcoming the ambition shown by Johnson and his plans to turn the UK into ‘a champion of free trade’, which she said was “like music to our ears”.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

Subscribe to our newsletters