EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier told MEPs on Tuesday (26 November) that the UK would have to agree to maintain a ‘level playing field’ and not undercut EU regulation to secure a trade agreement.
At a behind-closed-doors meeting in the European Parliament in Strasbourg, Barnier said that the withdrawal agreement signed off by EU leaders and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson was only the first step of Brexit, and warned that talks on future relations would be tough with Brexit continuing to dominate UK politics for years to come.
Barnier added that if a Conservative government sought to diverge from EU regulatory standards that would weaken environmental and worker protection standards there will never be a free trade agreement, MEPs at the meeting revealed.
He also told MEPs that ensuring continued strong co-operation with the UK on security and defence was another top priority for Brussels in the negotiations, the Financial Times reported.
Johnson has promised that a new post-Brexit trade deal with the EU will be concluded by the end of next year, ruling out the possibility of extending the transition period that will follow the UK’s formal exit from the EU.
That sets a timetable that is far shorter than the two years envisaged by his predecessor, Theresa May, and the average of four years for international trade agreements.
EU officials have voiced scepticism at the prospects of a comprehensive trade and political agreement being finalised and ratified, a process which would also shave months off the negotiating time, by December 2020.
That has raised the prospects of a ‘bare bones’ trade agreement involving duty-free, quota-free trade in goods that could be put in place without needing to wait for ratification by national parliaments throughout the EU.
Should Johnson’s Conservative party, which currently holds a ten point lead in opinion polls, win the UK general election on 12 December, his government will seek to pass the Withdrawal Agreement through parliament before Christmas.
However, Barnier warned that, should the election fail to break the political deadlock in the UK and deliver another hung parliament, the risk of a no-deal Brexit would increase.
[Edited by Sam Morgan]