The EU has told the UK that talks on a new trading relationship will be scuppered unless the country honours commitments to put in place checks on goods moving between Britain and Northern Ireland.
As European affairs ministers signed off their negotiating mandate for talks with the UK, due to start next week, they warned Boris Johnson’s government that they will grind to a halt unless Britain fully implements the Brexit deal that the EU and UK agreed last year.
Mr Johnson broke the deadlock with the EU last October by agreeing a new plan for Northern Ireland that places the region in both the EU customs union and the UK’S customs territory, replacing the controversial Irish backstop, hated by hard Brexiters in the UK who feared it would keep Britain in the EU’S orbit indefinitely.
Instead of a hardening of the border on the island of Ireland, the new protocol places a customs and regulatory border down the Irish Sea. But Brussels was alarmed by comments from Mr Johnson during the UK’S December election campaign that checks would not be needed on trade between Britain and Northern Ireland.
EU concerns have been heightened by reports at the weekend that the UK is looking for ways to minimise checks. Arriving at the ministerial meeting in Brussels, Germany’s Europe minister Michael Roth said: “My message is crystal clear to our friends in London, keep your promises based on the protocol.”
Ireland’s foreign minister Simon Coveney went further and said: “The implementation of agreements that have already been struck are the test of good faith and trust.
“If there is not progress on the infrastructure needed to implement the Irish protocol as part of the withdrawal agreement in the next few months, then I think this is going to be a very worrying signal for whether or not it’s going to be possible to conclude something sensible before the end of the year.”
The adoption of the mandate means that the EU is ready to begin what Brussels expects to be a brutally difficult negotiation with Britain. On Tuesday senior ministers signed off Britain’s negotiating mandate for an EU trade deal, with Downing Street saying it hoped it would pave the way for “constructive” talks beginning next week in Brussels.
Number 10 said Britain would seek a deal “based on other existing free trade agreements between the EU and like-minded sovereign nations”; the EU’S trade deals with Canada, Japan and South Korea have previously been cited as models.
The UK negotiating mandate was agreed by the “XS” cabinet committee — senior ministers led by Mr Johnson overseeing the trade talks — and will be published in parliament on Thursday.
Downing Street confirmed that negotiations with the EU would take place in Brussels and London, with talks in the British capital expected in mid-march.
Meanwhile, Mr Johnson and his ministers are studying the EU’S negotiating mandate amid fears in London that the EU27 countries are making excessively onerous demands.
The EU’S mandate underlines that Britain will have to agree to uphold a “level playing field” of common rules in areas such as environmental policy, labour law and state aid in exchange for a tariff-free, quota-free trade deal.
The final version of the text says that Britain will have to commit to keep its own rulemaking broadly in line with EU regulations as they evolve “over time”. The UK has firmly rejected such demands as an affront to the country’s sovereignty.
French Europe minister Amélie de Montchalin warned Britain that it must also give ground on fishing rights if a trade deal is to be reached this year, saying that the EU will not “cede to time pressure” in the negotiations.
Ms Montchalin told reporters that Paris would have “absolute vigilance” when it came to the talks on fish, saying that the issue was part of a set of core set of concerns for Paris that also include “the conditions of fair competition” between the EU and UK and the governance of any deal.
“It’s important to be clear . . . that we will not cede to the pressure of the calendar, that we will not make little arrangements, or compromise our principles,” Ms Montchalin said. “We should be very firm on the route we are going to take.”