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EU toughens negotiating demands before Brexit trade talks begin

European Union governments ratcheted up their negotiating demands ahead of contentious talks about the bloc’s post-Brexit relationship with the UK in a move that risks inflaming tensions with Downing Street.

The bloc’s 27 remaining members are seeking stricter conditions on unfair competition, fishing and human rights than those set out last week by the European Commission, according to a draft of the EU’s negotiating mandate seen by Bloomberg News.

“We will defend the interests of the EU.”

— Michel Barnier, EU’s chief negotiator

Most controversially, the governments want to force the UK to continue to abide by EU rules in areas such as State aid — even if the bloc changes them in the future. They will also seek to make the whole deal contingent on Britain committing to respect the European Convention on Human Rights.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has already dismissed several of the EU’s demands, saying he wants to break free from the EU’s rule book after Brexit. If the two sides can’t reach an agreement, Britain will crash out of the bloc at the end of December and default to trading on World Trade Organization terms.

“We are not prepared to conclude a deal at any price,” Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, told reporters in Luxembourg on Monday. “We will defend the interests of the EU.”

Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland Boris Johnson has dismissed several EU demands, indicating he wants to break free from the EU’s rule book after Brexit. (Photo: Bloomberg)

The EU’s negotiating mandate could be revised again before the EU-27 are scheduled to sign it off in Brussels on February 25. Talks with the UK are due to begin the following week, with a deal needed before the current transition period ends on December 31. Following is a summary of the amendments the governments are seeking to make:

  • The level playing field commitments should prevent unfair competitive advantages “over time so as to ensure a sustainable and long-lasting relationship” between the two sides. Officials on both sides say the issue is likely to become the most contentious in the negotiations.
  • On giving EU boats access to UK fishing waters, something the EU says is a prerequisite for any deal, the latest draft mandate says the two sides should “uphold” existing reciprocal access conditions, and that they should be based on “common technical and conservation measures”. Johnson has promised to take the UK out of the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy, which gives other European countries what many in the UK see as an unfair share of the country’s catch.
  • In a further sign, the EU doesn’t want to give the UK any special treatment, as governments added that the two sides’ cooperation on aviation links should merely be those “typically included” in the EU’s agreements with other countries.
  • The EU also bolstered its demand that the UK remain committed to the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). The original version of the mandate said any law-enforcement partnership should be suspended if the UK denounced the ECHR. The latest draft makes clear that the entire basis of an agreement hinges on Britain’s “continued commitment to respect” it. Last week, the Times reported that the Government was considering suspending the convention.

— Bloomberg