UK talks tough on EU post-Brexit trade deal

February 29, 2020 | 09:19
Tensions between Britain and the European Union are high ahead of post-Brexit trade talks next week, but experts say a deal is possible - even if it falls below what many businesses want.
uk talks tough on eu post brexit trade deal
The United Kingdom and the European Union begin post-Brexit trade talks on Monday. (Photo: AFP/Emmanuel Dunand)

When Britain left the EU on Jan 31, both sides agreed to a standstill transition until December to strike a new economic and security partnership to replace 47 years of integration.

They both want an agreement to facilitate trade in goods but disagree on how far London should align itself with EU rules to achieve this.

There are also other flashpoints over issues such as fishing rights, financial services and the governance and shape of the overall deal.

"There may well be plenty of noise about divergence, autonomy and taking back control, but it is questionable whether it reflects profound underlying differences," said Iain Begg of the London School of Economics.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson says Britain must have "economic and political independence", and his government threatened this week to abandon the trade talks if no progress is made by June.

But Begg noted that aside from issues of trade, the EU and Britain had similar priorities in many areas, including cooperation to tackle irregular migration and security matters.

"The corollary is that, although the detail will often be tricky, the basis for an agreement should not be hard to find," he wrote in an online commentary published Friday.


Jill Rutter, of the UK in a Changing Europe programme, said that Johnson has more modest ambitions for the new EU partnership than his predecessor, Theresa May.

"Talk of leaving the single market and customs union and yet retaining the 'exact same benefits' is a distant memory," she wrote in a commentary published Friday.

She added: "A deal will require one or both parties to move. But they are less far apart than they look ... Both sides are looking at a relatively distant relationship."

Trade expert David Henig said Britain's negotiating approach was "far more grounded in reality" than it had been previously, and clearer.

"There isn't a huge gulf on substance between the UK and EU," he wrote on Twitter, while warning that reaching a deal "depends on the politics".

The May government was plagued by divisions over Brexit, but since a general election in December, Johnson leads a Conservative party largely united on its desire to break free from Brussels.

"They would certainly consider a no deal outcome," said Simon Usherwood of the University of Surrey.

But he said the UK's negotiating objectives allowed room for compromise - and predicted that with some political freedom, and a desire to focus on other issues than Brexit, Johnson would use it.

"I think they would be happy to get a deal, even if that deal isn't really very much of a deal in terms of substance," he told AFP.


Many business groups however have expressed disappointment at the limited scope of the deal that London is proposing.

Allie Renison of the Institute of Directors (IoD) said it was "disappointed that securing market access continuity seems to be less than a fundamental priority".

"For most IoD members, maintaining ease of trade with the single market is more important than being able to diverge from EU regulations," she said.

The BRC retail lobby group said it was "encouraging" that Britain was aiming for zero-tariff, zero-quota trade in goods, and welcomed its intention to cut checks and red tape.

But its director of food, Andrew Opie, warned "they must go much further if they are to prevent future disruption at the border".

The government conceded on Thursday that up to 50,000 new staff would need to be hired to manage customs paperwork under its preferred EU deal.


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