France is warning it will be difficult for the European Union and the UK to reach agreement over a new trade relationship by the end of the year, reviving the spectre of a no-deal Brexit.
"We need to complete the negotiation in four months, which objectively seems difficult to achieve," Amélie de Montchalin, France’s Minister of State in charge of European Affairs, told a Senate committee on Thursday.
"We must without delay prepare for all scenarios, especially that of a no-deal," she added.
The UK left the EU at the end of January after 47 years of membership and it is currently in a transition period, due to end in December, which was designed to give both sides enough time to agree on a new, post-Brexit trade relationship.
But the talks have stalled in recent weeks, with each side blaming the other for the lack of progress.
The EU's chief negotiator Michel Barnier said last Friday (June 5) he believed that common ground could be reached during the summer, or by the start of the autumn at the latest.
But he cautioned that a deal had to be reached by October 31 in order to be ratified by all member states by the end of the year.
This week, Barnier warned he would not allow the UK to "cherry-pick" its way to an agreement by choosing the most attractive elements of the single market without accepting any obligations.
''The truth is that in many areas it is demanding a lot more than Canada, Japan or any of our other (trade) partners. In many areas it is looking to maintain, in fact, the benefits of being a member state without the constraints,” Barnier told lawmakers in Brussels on Wednesday (June 10).
''We cannot allow and we will not allow cherry-picking,'' he said. “The United Kingdom chose to become a third country. It cannot have the best of both worlds.”
Fears of unfair competition
Barnier did signal there would be some flexibility in the EU's "level playing field" demands, requiring the UK to continue to apply the bloc's state aid rules if it wants to secure a new trade deal.
"I am ready to find compromises," Barnier told the EU's economic and social committee.
"But in essence what he said yesterday is that level playing field will have to play a central part of any future EU-UK relationship," says Euronews Brussels Correspondent Shona Murray, adding that Barnier had made it clear he would protect the interests of the EU single market.
"He said ‘we can’t jeopardise the future for the sake of the present’ – meaning essentially that he had a responsibility to protect the single market, that it was the EU’s ecosystem."
Barnier said the UK wanted quota and tariff-free access to the EU's single market without complying with the bloc's rules.
The European Parliament, which must approve any final agreement, is scheduled to debate on Friday (June 12) the conditions of a future EU-UK relationship.
According to a draft resolution obtained by the AFP news agency, the European Parliament will call on the UK to review its stance on the EU's demands.
Brussels is worried that the UK could seek to undercut EU regulations to offer more competitive goods and services right at its doorstep.
The UK has said it does not plan to undermine European standards, but that the whole point of Brexit was to be able for the country to create its own rules – and that remaining tied to EU regulations would amount to a breach of sovereignty.
Barnier sought to address these concerns on Wednesday by arguing this is not an issue of sovereignty but a matter of maintaining common standards to ensure fair competition between future trading partners.
He made the point that the UK is different from Canada and Japan because of its geographic proximity to the EU and because of its decades of trade with the bloc.