Nervy EU states wary of Brexit concessions by Michel Barnier
Michel Barnier will be told on Wednesday that the EU capitals want full sight of any deal with the UK before it is agreed, amid concerns the bloc’s chief Brexit negotiator may concede too much ground in the final days of negotiation.
The member states have called on Barnier, who is in London, to address their representatives in Brussels in an early morning video conference to provide a full account of the latest developments.
A senior EU diplomat said they had confidence in Barnier as a negotiator but added there was some nervousness following his briefing on Friday where he had told the ambassadors of his “flexibility” over aspects of customs and border controls.
Barnier counselled that the British negotiators led by David Frost were yet to reciprocate by agreeing a robust system of dispute settlement, which he admitted could give “rise to concerns about cherrypicking”.
A senior EU diplomat said: “[Barnier] will be asked to relay the message to the commission the member states would like to have prior scrutiny of a possible agreement before closing it. Being in the dark makes people nervous.”
The negotiations remain stuck on the level of access that will be granted to European fishing fleets in UK waters and the means by which either side will be able to hit back if the other seeks to gain a competitive advantage by diverging on environmental, labour or social standards.
On Tuesday, the French president, Emmanuel Macron, and Belgium’s prime minister, Alexander De Croo, spoke at a joint press conference of their determination to ensure EU interests were not damaged in the last moments of the negotiation.
Macron said: “We are particularly vigilant on the level playing field, today and in the future, and the question of fishing. The preservation of the activities of our fishermen in British waters is an essential condition, the fair rules of the market in the future equally so. On the subject of Brexit our position has been constant – a deal must allow for a fair future relationship and France won’t accept a deal that doesn’t respect our interests in the future.”
De Croo used a football analogy to emphasise his concern about the UK scoring a “decisive goal … in the last minute”.
Some diplomats have said they are concerned that the European commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, may be willing to offer too many concessions in order to enhance her own legacy by sealing a last-minute deal.
Von der Leyen said during comments in a debate with regional and national parliamentarians that she was determined to secure a system that goes beyond a conventional free trade “non-regression” clause on environmental or social standards.
“At the moment, we’re discussing how we replicate control of the level playing field,” she said, “so that we can be clear there is no regression on what we have achieved and there is fairness over time, so access can be without quota or tariffs and all companies play by the same rules in the single market.”
The EU wants to ensure regulatory alignment through a dispute mechanism that would allow Brussels to hit trade with unilateral tariffs where the UK has diverged from the single market rulebook.
“We want an agreement, but not at any price. We are well prepared for both scenarios so we will see in the next days how things turn out,” Von der Leyen said.
Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office minister in charge of no deal preparations, said the demand revealed that the EU was not prepared to fully accept that UK was leaving. “The EU still want us to be tied to their way of doing things,” he said. “The EU are at the moment reserving the right, if there is any sort of dispute, not quite to rip everything up but to impose some really penal and tough restrictions on us, and we don’t think that’s fair.”