The United Kingdom has been warned it faces a “tough road ahead” in post-Brexit trade talks as the rival sides – European ministers in Brussels and the UK’s cabinet in Westminster – signed off on their negotiating red lines.
The European Union General Affairs Council on Tuesday approved the bloc’s mandate for negotiations with the UK – talks which are set to start next week.
Meanwhile, in Westminster, Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Tuesday chaired a meeting of senior ministers on his Brexit committee, as they agreed on their starting point for talks ahead of the publication of the UK’s negotiating position on Thursday.
A spokesman for Johnson added that the UK’s negotiating mandate for trade talks with the United States would also be published early next week.
“It was a very smooth process to agree our approach,” the spokesman said. “We look forward to engaging with the EU constructively.” The UK position was “based on other existing FTAs [Free Trade Agreements] between the EU and like-minded sovereign nations”.
But Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs Stef Blok, arriving at the meeting in Brussels, warned of the “immense” time pressure facing both sides as they attempt to agree to a future trading relationship by the end of the year – a deadline insisted upon by the UK side.
“The past has shown that we managed to do good work as a united European Union with regard to the Withdrawal Agreement, so that gives me hope for the negotiations to come,” he told reporters.
“But the time pressure is immense, the interests are huge – it’s a very complicated treaty – so it will be very hard work. A tough road ahead.”
Simon Coveney, Ireland’s foreign minister, said the EU was making a “generous and fair” offer to the UK but warned Johnson not to renege on the commitments made in the Withdrawal Agreement.
“Michel Barnier and the Irish government are at one on this: the Withdrawal Agreement involves significant commitments in the context of Northern Ireland through the Irish protocol that both the EU and the UK need to follow through on,” he said.
“If that doesn’t happen, then I think it will damage significantly the prospects of being able to get even a bare-bones trade agreement – along with a number of other things that need to be done [and] in place by the end of the year.”
His comments follow reports that the prime minister had ordered his Brexit team to find ways to “get around” the Northern Ireland protocol, which aims to avoid the introduction of a hard border on the island of Ireland.
Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, wrote on Twitter: “We will keep a very close eye on the implementation of the Withdrawal Agreement – this will be key for building a solid future partnership with the UK.”
Croatia’s european affairs minister, Andreja Metelko-Zgombic, said the EU would be willing to offer a “substantial” and “ambitious” partnership in post-Brexit trade talks with the UK.
“Today’s General Affairs Council will adopt a mandate for the future relationship with the UK – and from our side we are really willing to offer a substantial, ambitious, balanced and wide-ranging partnership,” she said.
The EU’s negotiating mandate will be published later on Tuesday.
British ministers are expected to seek a Canada-style agreement – but with zero tariffs, a proposal Johnson and his Europe adviser, David Frost, have set out in speeches in recent weeks.
But the push for a Canada-style deal could set up a clash with the EU after Barnier ruled out such an agreement.
He has previously said the UK was too close in proximity to be permitted to compete with the other 27 member states on such terms.
The prime minister’s official spokesman, asked about the trade talks on Monday, said: “The UK’s primary objective in the negotiations is to ensure that we restore our economic and political independence on January 1 2021.”
Frost and his team will head to Brussels for the first round of negotiations on March 2. One of the flashpoints expected with the forthcoming publication of the EU’s negotiation mandate is on fishing, with leading member states speaking regularly about wanting continued access to UK waters.
Johnson used a speech in Greenwich earlier this month to announce that, once free of the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy, “British fishing grounds are first and foremost for British boats”.
Fishing accounts for just 0.1 percent of the UK’s gross domestic product (GDP), but the industry is of great symbolic value and dominates coastal communities.
France’s Europe minister, Amelie de Montchalin, signalled that fishing would be a hotly contested topic when the two negotiating teams come to spar in London and Brussels over the coming months.
“The fishermen have the right to be protected; they know very well that if we sign a bad deal they will lose enormously,” she told TV station France 2.
A leaked draft of the EU negotiation mandate last week also included a stipulation that the UK should “return unlawfully removed cultural objects to their countries of origin”.
The passage is thought to refer to the Elgin Marbles, ancient Greek sculptures brought to the UK – allegedly illicitly – more than 200 years ago, and now on display in the British Museum.
Greece has been vocal about demanding the return of the marble sculptures, which once adorned the Greek Parthenon temple, to Athens.
Downing Street has insisted that the future of the marbles is “not up for discussion as part of our trade negotiations”.
The prime minister is expected to meet Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz at Number 10 on Tuesday as part of his diplomatic efforts with EU leaders before talks commence.