The EU’s chief negotiator has warned of “very serious divergence” between Britain and Brussels over the future relationship, following the first round of post-Brexit trade talks.
Michel Barnier said he was confident a deal could be struck between the two sides, saying “an agreement is possible, even if it is difficult”.
But he warned there were a number of areas in which the two sides continued to take opposing views, particularly on the provisions surrounding a so-called level playing field which the EU sees as a way of guaranteeing fair competition between UK and EU companies.
“We had agreed with the United Kingdom that we would want to prevent, on both sides, distortion of trade and prevent unfair competitive advantage… (But) the United Kingdom does not wish to translate those undertakings into a common agreement,” Barnier said.
Other issues include criminal justice policy, with Barnier pointing to the UK’s refusal to accept any role for the European Court of Justice as problematic.
Scale of the challenge
Fishing would also be a headache in the Brexit trade talks, with Barnier arguing that an annual agreement akin to Norway’s would be challenged by the number of species of fish in UK waters.
“A trading agreement, a commercial agreement, an economic agreement with the UK will have to include a balanced solution for fisheries,” Barnier said of an area which is tricky for the EU as many of its fishermen trawl in British waters.
He said the nature of the agreement was a sticking point, with the EU arguing for an all-encompassing deal, while London is looking for a series of separate “mini-deals”.
Barnier also revealed that Cabinet Office minister and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Michael Gove will represent the UK in the joint committee overseeing the withdrawal agreement.
He will meet with European Commission vice president Maros Sefcovic on 30 March.
UK says it’s ‘just the first round’
A UK government spokesperson said the Brexit trade talks would be “tough negotiations”, adding “this is just the first round”.
“In some areas there seems to be a degree of common understanding of how to take the talks forward,” they added.
“In other areas, such as fishing, governance, criminal justice and the so-called level playing field issues there are, as expected, significant differences.
“The UK team made clear that, on 1 January 2021, we would regain our legal and economic independence – and that the future relationship must reflect that fact.
“We look forward to continuing these talks in the same constructive spirit when the parties meet again in London on 18 March.”