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Michel Barnier warns UK: EU will not conclude post-Brexit trade deal 'at any price'

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The UK flag is removed from the European Parliament in Brussels, January 31, 2020, the day the UK left the EU. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)
The UK flag is removed from the European Parliament in Brussels, January 31, 2020, the day the UK left the EU. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)   -   Copyright  ASSOCIATED PRESS
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Michel Barnier has warned that the EU will not conclude a trade deal with the UK "at any price", as ministers signed off on the bloc's negotiating stance in upcoming talks.

The European Union's chief negotiator spoke after a meeting in Brussels of the EU General Affairs Council – made up mainly of European Affairs ministers.

Speaking mainly in French, Barnier described the Political Declaration – agreed as part of the divorce deal between the UK and the EU – as "extremely important". The document provides a framework for the trade negotiations, which are due to get underway in earnest in early March.

Both sides have committed themselves to a "level playing field" over issues including state aid, competition, social and workers' rights, the environment and climate change.

However, there has been concern in EU circles at the British government's determination to diverge from EU rules once the standstill transition period expires at the end of the year. The UK left the EU on January 31.

The EU would insist on "robust governance" of the agreement and "solid guarantees" to ensure that competition was fair, Barnier said. Switching to English, he added that the UK could not have high access to the EU's single market without "robust level playing field safeguards".

"A very frustrated Michel Barnier we just saw in the press conference...": Brussels correspondent Shona Murray reports for Euronews Now, in the video player above.

Meanwhile UK ministers meeting in London have approved the British stance, which is scheduled to be published on Thursday.

Both sides have been outlining sharply contrasting positions as they flex their muscles in advance of the formal negotiations.

British officials have been underlining the determination of Boris Johnson’s government to reject EU supervision and forge an independent path. Michel Barnier's latest comments follow previous warnings from EU leaders that the more the UK diverges from EU norms, the less access it will have to EU markets.

UK sends 'worrying signal' on Northern Ireland

Potential flashpoints in the negotiations are in areas such as state aid – where the UK rejects EU rules – fishing, which the EU wants attached to trade talks, and Northern Ireland.

Arriving for the EU meeting on Tuesday, some ministers warned that a trade deal may founder if the UK fails to implement the divorce terms, ratified by both sides and which have the force of an international treaty.

There has been alarm at comments by Boris Johnson suggesting there will be no checks on trade between Britain and Northern Ireland, exacerbated by recent news reports quoting UK government sources. The Withdrawal Agreement keeps Northern Ireland subject to some EU rules, and effectively creates a regulatory filter in the Irish Sea to avoid a hard land border between the North and the Irish Republic.

"Without good faith and trust, building a future relationship is not going to be easy," said Ireland's Foreign Minister Simon Coveney. He warned that failure to make progress on the necessary infrastructure would send "a very worrying signal for whether or not it's going to be possible to conclude something sensible before the end of the year".

EU standards a 'reference point'

The 46-page mandate given to the EU negotiating team under Michel Barnier includes a provision that EU standards should be a “reference point” when it comes to ensuring “fair competition” and a “level playing field” in the future economic partnership (page 26, clause 94). An earlier draft version (page 22, clause 89) said a trade agreement should uphold "common high standards" in the various policy areas.

Some observers interpret the change as a sign of flexibility on the EU’s part, perhaps giving the UK some wiggle room to avoid having to fall completely into line with EU rules in areas such as tax, the environment and employment law. But others see the phrase as evidence that Brussels is toughening its stance.

Earlier this month, Boris Johnson pledged that the UK would not “engage in some cut-throat race to the bottom” and was not seeking to “undermine EU standards”.

However, a Downing Street spokesman reiterated on Tuesday that the UK’s main goal was to “restore our economic and political independence” from next January, when the standstill transition period ends.

The UK is demanding a free trade agreement (FTA) similar to those struck by Brussels with countries such as Canada, South Korea and Japan – which remove most tariffs and obligations to stick to EU rules.

“A Canada-style deal is... a basic bare-bones deal, just basic provisions for goods and services, nothing close on regulation,” trade lawyer Miriam González Durántez told Euronews’ Good Morning Europe.

“Regulation is the difficult bit... I fear the UK is not interested in regulatory alignment, they are actually saying it in the government in pretty clear terms right now, so in my view the best we are ever going to get is a Canada-style agreement, but it is very likely right now that we may not have a deal at all.”

Michel Barnier has rejected such a deal for the UK with the same conditions as other countries, citing the UK’s geographical proximity to the EU – a factor underlined in the Political Declaration to which both sides signed up as part of the Brexit divorce deal.

Johnson’s office has accused Brussels of reneging on an original offer. But the EU’s stance is not new – it made the same point in negotiating guidelines in 2018 – leading to criticism that the British government is being disingenuous.

'Typical behaviour' ahead of talks

Last weekend the French President Emmanuel Macron warned that he was “not sure that an agreement will be reached between now and the end of the year”, describing the British as “very hard”.

“The two sides are far apart in a way, some of what is happening now is typical behaviour at the beginning of negotiations, to set your extreme position,” says Miriam González Durántez.

“On the other hand it's true in the UK there has been a fundamental change. During the last three years the UK was working towards a comprehensive and close agreement with the EU, and what we have now is the UK government... basically does not want a comprehensive agreement with the EU. I fear that in a way it has taken some time for the EU to realise that that is a game changer.”