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Trade talks will not start until February at earliest, EU tells UK

The EU has told Theresa May it will not start discussing the terms of a trade relationship with the UK until February at the earliest, and only then if the British prime minister has taken a grip of her divided cabinet and come up with an agreed vision of the future.

While May was being lauded by her ministers in London on Friday, EU officials in Brussels said that when leaders did move the Brexit talks forward, the first negotiations would have to be limited to the terms of a time-limited transition period.

The EU was unable to engage in substantive talks about a future trade deal without "more clarity" from May on her cabinet's vision of a free trade agreement with the EU, a senior EU official said.

Suggestions put forward from London so far have been dismissed as "cherry-picking" and "having your cake and eat it". "The UK has not been particularly specific," the official said. "It has been setting out a number of red lines, but what the UK has been saying so far still entails a number of internal contradictions and does not seem entirely realistic to us."

In recent weeks, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove have suggested the British could deregulate to gain a competitive advantage in certain sectors while enjoying frictionless trade with the European continent and Ireland.

The EU official said of trade talks: "I read in the press that the cabinet has not yet discussed this matter We need more information from the UK to really be able to engage."

An additional complication is that the delay in finding agreement between the commission and the UK government on the opening issues has left EU member states without a settled position on the principles that will instruct trade talks.

A slim leaked draft of the EU's guidelines on the outlines of a transition period says they will put forward ideas at the next meeting of leaders, which is likely to be in February or March, officials said.

Such is the uncertainty in Brussels about the British government's vision for a future trading relationship, however, that those talks could easily be delayed further without a UK cabinet plan, or if there are disputes about the transition period.

Negotiators have until October 2018 to strike a broad agreement on trade and transition, to pave the way for a fully fledged trade deal and other treaties to be negotiated after the UK leaves.

The set of EU guidelines to be agreed at a summit next week details the EU's terms for a transition period. The document insists the UK will have to accept current and new EU laws, as well as the jurisdiction of the European court of justice, without having any seats in decision-making institutions.

As it will no longer be an EU member, the UK will also fall out of the current free trade agreements the bloc has with countries around the world, and will need to come to an arrangement to avoid sudden obstacles to global British trade from 29 March 2019.

Gibraltar, the disputed British overseas territory, will not enjoy the benefits of a transition period until the British government comes to an arrangement over the future of the rock with Spain, it has been confirmed.

However, Brussels is confident May has accepted the limitations that will be applied to the UK during the transition period. The EU is also open to Britain starting negotiations with countries around the world on future trade deals during the transition period.

Earlier on Friday, the president of the European council, Donald Tusk, expressed his concerns that Downing Street was not aware of how difficult the coming negotiations would be.

"While being satisfied with today's agreement, which is obviously the personal success of Prime Minister Theresa May, let us remember that the most difficult challenge is still ahead," Tusk said. "We all know that breaking up is hard. But breaking up and building a new relation is much harder.

"Since the Brexit referendum, a year and a half has passed. So much time has been devoted to the easier part of the task. And now, to negotiate a transition arrangement and the framework for our future relationship, we have de facto less than a year."

The EU's chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, made it clear on Friday that such were the UK's red lines about leaving the single market, the customs union and the jurisdiction of a the European court of justice that Britain could only expect a trade deal along the lines of that recently agreed with Canada, which does not cover financial services.

Officials revealed that other countries around the world had approached Brussels to warn that the UK could not be given better terms than currently existing free trade agreements as it would be discriminatory under WTO rules.

"If we were to give the UK a very lopsided deal, the other partners with whom we have been engaging, with whom we have entered into balance agreements, will of course come back and challenge those agreements," the official said.

The suggestion from some in the UK that the terms of a trade deal could be largely settled by the time Britain leaves the bloc was also dismissed by officials.

One senior official said: "Now you have got 15 pages [in the agreement between the UK and the EU]. That took nine months. The [Canada free trade deal] is 1,598 pages. You can draw your own conclusions."

One leading MEP said the European parliament, which has a veto in the final withdrawal agreement, could refuse a Brexit transition deal if it was not happy with the outcome of the next phase of negotiations.

"We will only accept a transitional period after Brexit if we are satisfied with the outcome of the second-phase of negotiations," said Manfred Weber, the head of the centre-right European People's party bloc in the European parliament.

Guy Verhofstadt, the parliament's Brexit coordinator, said outstanding issues remained from the first phase of talks, including allowing future spouses to join EU expats living in the UK and ensuring promises on Ireland could be enforced, but he said the chamber would still vote on a resolution on Monday approving the widening of the talks.

[Source: By Daniel Boffey and Jennifer Rankin in Brussels, The Guardian, London, 08Dec17]

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small logoThis document has been published on 11Dec17 by the Equipo Nizkor and Derechos Human Rights. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.