EU ministers play hardball as they sign off negotiating plan

What happens next in Brexit trade wrangling? 

Today: EU ministers signed off the negotiating mandate for Michel Barnier in Brussels. It will be published this afternoon.

The Brexit inner Cabinet finalised the UK’s approach in Westminster. 

Thursday: The UK’s negotiating proposals will be put before Parliament.

Monday: Talks on the trade deal are due to start in Brussels. 

They will initially focus on the schedule for discussions – which in itself will be tricky. The EU wants to talk about fishing first, but the UK says it must be considered as part of a wider package. 

July: This is theoretically the last point at which the transition period can be extended – although Boris Johnson has insisted he will not contemplate any delay.

January 1: The transition period is due to end and the UK will be on new trade arrangements with the EU. This will either be the trade deal or World Trade Organisation terms. 

Boris Johnson launched a furious attack on the EU’s double-standards today after the European ministers set out a laundry list of demands for agreeing a trade deal.

Downing Street accused Brussels of trying to impose far tougher conditions on the UK than were offered to Canada or the US.  

The mandate handed to Michel Barnier by European ministers says Britain must follow a swathe of EU rules and accept legal oversight by the bloc’s judges, as well as making concessions on fishing rights and the Elgin Marbles. 

In a brazen effort to increase the pressure on the UK, the document also includes a brazen effort to thwart Mr Johnson’s drive for a Transatlantic trade deal. It says Britain must meet the EUs ‘health and product sanitary quality in the food and agricultural sector’ – which would deprive Mr Johnson of a key bargaining chip in talks with Donald Trump.

However, in a stinging rebuttal tonight, No10 dismissed the demands saying it will not compromise on the UK’s ‘legal autonomy’.

‘The EU has respected the autonomy of other major economies around the world such as Canada and Japan when signing trade deals with them. We just want the same,’ Downing Street tweeted. 

‘We agree the UK’s trade with the EU is significant. The US’s is on the same scale – yet that did not stop the EU being willing to offer the US zero tariffs without the kind of level playing field commitments or the legal oversight they have put in today’s mandate.’ 

At a press conference in the Belgian capital, Mr Barnier declared he was ‘ready’ for what would be ‘very difficult’ negotiations.

He said there must be guarantees of ‘fair’ competition between the two sides – and flatly rejected the idea of a Canada-style deal, saying it was thousands of miles away.

In a dig at the UK government, Mr Barnier said it was Britain imposing ‘time pressures’ and he would not engage in ‘polemic’.

‘I don’t have time to waste with that,’ he said. 

Earlier, the PM met his senior team to finalise British tactics for the looming talks. The inner Brexit ‘war Cabinet’ approved the blueprint ‘based on other existing FTAs between the EU and other like minded sovereign nations’. 

Mr Johnson has made clear that under no circumstances will he extend the ‘standstill’ transition period beyond the end of December – even if no agreement has been reached by that point.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock ratcheted up tensions this morning by accusing the EU of making ‘extraneous suggestions’ about what should be included in a deal.

Swiping at infighting among member states, he told Sky News: ‘Our side is absolutely clear what we want to achieve.’ 

Michel Barnier warned that the negotiations would be ‘very difficult’ as he confirmed his mandate had been approved by the EU today

Boris Johnson (pictured with Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz in Downing Street today) gathered his Cabinet to sign off Brexit trade deal plans

In a stinging rebuttal tonight, No10 dismissed the EU demands saying it will not compromise on the UK's 'legal autonomy'

In a stinging rebuttal tonight, No10 dismissed the EU demands saying it will not compromise on the UK’s ‘legal autonomy’

Vincenzo Amendola (left) and Amelie de Montchalin (right), ministers from Italy and France respectively, were among those meeting in Brussels today

Vincenzo Amendola (left) and Amelie de Montchalin (right), ministers from Italy and France respectively, were among those meeting in Brussels today

Attorney General Suella Braverman was at Cabinet todayGrant Shapps

Attorney General Suella Braverman (left) and Transport Secretary Grant Shappps were at Cabinet today

Key sticking points in EU trade talks 


The EU is determined to keep access to UK waters after December 31. 

France is particularly keen to ensure that its fishermen have generous quotas when Britain leaves the EU Commons Fisheries arrangements. 

But Boris Johnson has said: ‘British fishing grounds are first and foremost for British boats.’

Zero tariffs and quotas

The UK insists it wants an off-the-shelf free trade agreement, similar to that the EU struck with Canada.

This would mean shunning almost all tariffs and quotas, and potentially bolting on preferential access for financial services.

However, Michel Barnier has said the Canada model is not appropriate as the UK is geographically closer to the EU and the competition issues are different.

Food standards 

Mr Johnson and Donald Trump have vowed to push for a quick Transatlantic trade deal.

However, the US is likely to demand concessions on better access to lucrative UK food markets in return for good terms in other areas.

The EU is trying to thwart the discussions by insisting the UK must stay tied to its food standards rules. 

The Elgin Marbles 

The EU negotiation mandate includes a stipulation Britain should ‘return unlawfully removed cultural objects to their countries of origin’.

The passage is thought to refer to the Elgin Marbles, ancient Greek sculptures taken to Britain more than 200 years ago and now on display in the British Museum.

Greece has been vocal about demanding the marble sculptures, once situated in the ancient Greek Parthenon temple, are returned to Athens.

Downing Street has insisted the future of the marbles is ‘not up for discussion as part of our trade negotiations’.

A Whitehall source said: ‘We have to have taken back control by January 1. We are being very clear about that so that there is no misunderstanding.’ 

Brussels’ mandate for negotiator Michel Barnier was formally unveiled this afternoon.

It calls for rules on fishing rights to continue unchanged after the transition ends.

The document says ‘the provisions on fisheries should uphold existing reciprocal access conditions, quota shares and the traditional activity of the Union fleet’.

The bloc also wants to block any reduction in ‘common standards’ that currently exist on the environment, and a reference to food quality has been added since the previously leaked drafts.

Rules would need to be maintained in the area of ‘health and product sanitary quality in the agricultural and food sector’ – a clear jibe at the UK’s hopes of a US trade deal. 

Making clear the EU will push for tough ‘level playing field’ provisions – another thing the UK has rejected – the document said: ‘Given the union and the United Kingdom’s geographic proximity and economic interdependence, the envisaged partnership must ensure open and fair competition, encompassing robust commitments to ensure a level playing field.’ 

The mandate also features a thinly-veiled reference to the dispute over the Elgin Marbles, which Greece has long said should be returned.

‘The parties should, consistently with Union rules, address issues relating to the return or restitution of unlawfully removed cultural objects to their countries of origin,’ it said. 

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