Boris Johnson tees up fight over fishing in talks with EU leaders

Boris Johnson tees up fight over fishing in talks with EU leaders

Commission president Von der Leyen says trade deal would have to ensure level playing field.

Boris Johnson told European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen that Britain would insist on “maintaining control of UK fishing waters” after it leaves the EU, setting up a big clash with Brussels as the two sides prepare for testing negotiations after Brexit.

During Mr Johnson’s first meeting with Ms von der Leyen since she took office last month, the prime minister laid down his terms, insisting that any trade deal with the EU must be complete by the end of 2020 and that Britain would “not align” with the bloc’s rules.

Downing Street said Mr Johnson reiterated that Britain wanted “a broad free-trade agreement covering goods and services and co-operation in other areas”. It would exclude free movement and European Court of Justice jurisdiction.

The talks — described as “cordial” by UK officials — came after the commission president used a speech in the British capital to warn the UK not to undercut the EU with a looser British state-aid regime.

Ms von der Leyen told an audience at the London School of Economics, where she had studied, that any “high-quality” trade deal would have to be accompanied by tough provisions to ensure a level playing field, which would also cover the environment, labour and taxation.

Last November Mr Johnson said he would change Britain’s rules on state aid to make it “faster and easier” for a government to intervene in failing industries. He also said he wanted to “fundamentally change” public procurement rules to “back British business”.

Ms von der Leyen said a trade deal should involve “no tariffs, no quotas and no dumping” — a reference to any attempt by Britain to gain what the EU would regard as an unfair competitive advantage.

She added that the EU would defend its single market and customs union, reflecting concerns in Brussels that Mr Johnson might head down a protectionist path after Brexit.

Ms von der Leyen’s meeting with Mr Johnson was his first since his December election victory, during which he made clear that Britain would leave the EU on January 31.

Both sides are committed to trying to make rapid progress on a future relationship deal that would be ready for the start of 2021, when the UK’s post-Brexit transition period ends. 

The commission president said that the UK needed to accept that a full agreement, covering “every single aspect of our new partnership”, would not be ready by the end of the year.

“We will have to prioritise,” she said. “I want to be very honest about what lies ahead of us.” Mr Johnson’s allies insist that the entire future UK/EU relationship can be wrapped up by December 2020.

A comprehensive deal is “basically impossible” by the end of 2020, she said, noting that there would be “at most” nine to 10 months to hammer out an agreement given the time needed for ratification.

Mr Johnson has ruled out any extension of the transition period, but Ms von der Leyen suggested a stocktaking by the summer to assess whether more time is needed to negotiate.

Speaking as tensions escalate between the US and Iran, Ms von der Leyen devoted substantial time in her speech to the importance of foreign and security policy co-operation. The EU and UK “must build a new, comprehensive security partnership to fight cross-border threats, ranging from terrorism to cyber security to counter-intelligence”, she said.

“The truth is that Brexit will not resolve any of the existing challenges for the EU nor the UK,” added Ms von der Leyen. “Even being apart and not bound by the treaties, it will require intensive co-operation.”

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