The European Union is to discuss its post-Brexit trade position as Britain launches a 40-person strong negotiating task force for when it officially leaves the bloc.
Britain is set to formally depart the EU on January 31, which will allow each side to move on to discussing their relationship for the future.
Boris Johnson‘s focus will be on securing a free trade deal, as he has long promised to do, while the EU will look to assess what concessions it can force from Britain.
Divergence from the bloc’s rules looks to be a key sticking point – with Brexit secretary stating their will be some differentiation but that this will not be done “for the sake of it”.
Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, today said he would present a negotiating mandate to the bloc’s remaining 27 member states on Monday.
While the prime minister’s spokesman confirmed an end to the Brexit Department as of January 31, with the launch of a 40-strong negotiating team headed by his former Europe adviser David Frost to take discussions forward.
Mr Barnier, speaking after meeting with Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, said: “Brexit is not going to go away.
“We have some important work ahead of us.
“We also need to begin negotiations on our future relationship – an ambitious relationship with the UK.
“It’s time for round two and time will be very short. We will maintain the EU unity, and we want to find an agreement that works in the interest of the whole EU.”
In regards to a free trade deal, he reiterated the bloc’s stance that Britain’s access to the single market will be dependent on its willingness to meet with its rules.
Mr Barnier added: “The level of access for the UK and particular for the UK products to the single market will be proportionate to the level of commitments taken by the UK vis-a-vis our rules in particular for the state regulations.”
Meanwhile, Mr Varadkar suggested that the EU27 has the strongest hand in negotiations – though he does not believe they have to be conducted as a contest.
“I think if you see this as a contest, the European Union is in a very strong position – we’re 27 countries, we have a population of 450 million people and the single market is the largest economy in the world,” he said.
“But I don’t think we have to see it as a contest. There is a possibility for us to work together with the United Kingdom over the next few months and come to a future relationship and a trade agreement that’s mutually beneficial, and that’s the spirit in which we will be entering these talks.”
He also said that should Britain decide it wishes to return to the EU in future, there will “always be a seat kept for them at the table”.
The home secretary Priti Patel insisted that Britain will diverge from the EU on regulations in an interview on Sunday, despite the risk of this hampering a free trade deal.
However, Brexit secretary Mr Barclay toned down the stance and told the BBC’s Andrew Marr on Sunday: “We’re coming out of the single market, we’re coming out of the customs union. We’re not just going to diverge just for the sake of it – we need to look at where the opportunities are.”