UK, EU clash over vision for post-Brexit trade ties

Alice RITCHIE in London with Alex PIGMAN in Brussels
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Prime Minister Boris Johnson pledged to restore full sovereign controls over a number of areas as Britain and the EU begin to ponder their post-Brexit future

Prime Minister Boris Johnson pledged to restore full sovereign controls over a number of areas as Britain and the EU begin to ponder their post-Brexit future (AFP Photo/Frank Augstein)

London (AFP) - Britain and the European Union on Monday set out their red lines for post-Brexit trade talks, offering conflicting visions of their future relationship that raise the prospect of clashes to come.

Three days after Britain took a historic step to leave the EU, Prime Minister Boris set out a plan for his country to become a global champion of free trade.

He said he wanted a wide-ranging trade agreement with Brussels, Britain's largest trading partner but warned that breaking free from the EU's rules and regulations was the priority.

"I see no need to bind ourselves to an agreement with the EU," Johnson said in a speech in London.

"We will restore full sovereign control over our borders and immigration, competition and subsidy rules, procurement and data protection."

In Brussels, EU negotiator Michel Barnier formally offered a deep future relationship but only as long as Britain makes guarantees to trade fairly.

The negotiations are not due to begin until March but fears about the rocky road ahead sent the pound falling by 1.5 percent against the dollar in Monday trading.

Britain and the EU have left themselves just 11 months to negotiate an agreement to replace almost four decades of economic and political integration, before a post-Brexit transition ends on December 31.

If they cannot, trade relations will be administered according to the rules of the World Trade Organization, with tariffs and increased barriers that could cripple seamless EU-UK supply chains.

- 'Level playing field' -

Brussels has repeatedly warned Britain that the depth of future trade ties depends on how closely London adheres to EU standards -- what is known as maintaining the level playing field.

Barnier said securing access to Britain's fishing waters and fair trade would be his priority in the talks to come, with a special focus on denying Britain "unfair competitive advantages".

"We are ready to offer a highly ambitious trade deal as the central pillar of this partnership, including zero tariffs," he told a news conference.

"We must now agree on specific and effective guarantees to ensure a level-playing-field over the long term," he said.

"That means a mechanism to uphold the high standards we have on social, environmental, climate, tax and state aid matters today and in their future developments."

- No need to accept rules -

But in a speech at the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich, which chronicles Britain's past as a maritime superpower, Johnson said Britain was leaving the EU to "go out into the world".

He railed against protectionism as a brake to global economic growth, and promised Britain would not "undermine" EU standards such as on protections for workers, the environment or consumers.

But he argued: "There is no need for a free trade agreement to involve accepting EU rules on competition policy, subsidies, social protection, the environment, or anything similar, any more than the EU should be obliged to accept UK rules."

Britain has asked for the EU's trade deal with Canada to be used as a model, which Europeans consider acceptable on tariffs and quotas, but too weak on provisions to guarantee fair trade.

Johnson said the alternative would be to match the EU's current ties with far-away Australia, which includes tariffs, quotas and some basic cooperation on product safety but is not a formal trade deal.

"I have no doubt that in either case the UK will prosper," he said.

However, critics say an Australia-type deal is similar to reaching no deal at all.

"Going for an Australia model is totally absurd if you look at how tightly intertwined the value and production chains are," Bernd Lange, an influential MEP who chairs the European Parliament's trade committee, told AFP.

- Chess game -

Johnson, a polarising figure accused of glossing over the complexity of leaving the EU, is in a rush to seal a deal and deliver the "independence" promised by Brexiteers.

He has an option to extend the post-Brexit transition period beyond December 31, but says he will not.

Now it is formally out of the EU, Britain is hoping to negotiate a new trade deal not just with Brussels but also the United States, Japan and other countries.

Johnson admitted it would be a "great multi-dimensional game of chess", and is sending his foreign minister, Dominic Raab to Australia, Japan, Singapore and Malaysia in the coming two weeks.