Michel Barnier has rejected British demands for a Canada-style trade deal that would free the UK from EU rules as he made a thinly-veiled warning to Boris Johnson not to break his word.
Speaking in response to a landmark speech by David Frost, Britain’s Brexit negotiator, Barnier said the prime minister had agreed only six months ago to stick to the EU’s state aid rules and current social and environmental regulations after the transition period.
Asked if Frost was right in his speech on Monday night to say that agreeing to such alignment in a trade deal would be undemocratic, Barnier told reporters: “Truly not. It is a sovereign decision of the EU, it is a sovereign decision of the UK to cooperate … That is what Boris Johnson wrote in the political declaration.”
It is understood Barnier has privately fumed that the UK was backsliding on its promises. The joint political declaration committed both sides to “robust” provisions in a trade deal to avoid either side undercutting the other. The latest draft of the EU negotiating position seen by the Guardian states the provisions must be relevant “over time”. Frost has claimed that the UK was not seeking to lower standards but it sought independence as a “genuinely sovereign equal”.
In his speech on Monday night, Frost had claimed the consent of the British public would “snap dramatically and finally” if the UK continued to be bound to the EU rulebook after December 2020.
The Downing Street official went on to suggest that Brussels should offer a trade deal similar to that given to Canada, which avoided any European court of justice supervision of standards or demands on “alignment” with Brussels.
Barnier said the UK had recognised in the political declaration that any trade deal would be bespoke to Britain given its proximity to the EU market.
“We have proposed a trade agreement with a country that has a very particular and unique close geographical proximity not like Canada, not like South Korea and not like Japan,” Barnier said. “Very particular. We are ready to propose and work very quickly with Britain on the basis of the political declaration, which was agreed with Boris Johnson. We stand ready to propose this agreement, if the UK wants it.”
Speaking separately, the EU’s trade commissioner, Phil Hogan, warned that the UK would bear “full responsibility” for its choices.
“We’re looking for a level playing field and they don’t seem to want it,” Hogan said. “It’s a big worry for many of the manufacturing sectors in the UK. If they want to diverge from the existing rules and regulations, we are going to have problems. And the more they diverge from the existing EU law and regulations, the more problems we’ll have.”
Guy Verhofstadt, a senior MEP and former prime minister of Belgium, who has led the European parliament’s approach to Brexit, said the UK was approaching the negotiation as if the sides were “living on two different planets”.
Adding that it would be a “hell of a job” to secure a successful outcome from the negotiation given the British approach, Verhofstadt told reporters: “It’s not a good thing that we continue to discuss the future relationship as if the UK and Europe are living on two different planets because the UK market and the [EU] market are so close to each other – physically, geographically. And so, these things are so intense that we have to look at it in a little bit of a different way than to simply say, this is a pure free trade deal.”
The latest EU negotiating mandate, due to be finalised on 25 February, contains a demand for the UK to maintain cooperation on “unlawfully obtained cultural objects”. EU officials denied reports that the addition was a reference to Greece’s claims to the Elgin marbles, the ancient statues now held in the British Museum that were taken from the Parthenon in Athens.