Brexit battle lines drawn as EU leaders urge Boris Johnson to stay in step with bloc standards

Sophia Sleigh, JOE MURPHY
PA

Battle lines were drawn for a new Brexit showdown today as EU leaders called on Boris Johnson to agree to stay in step with EU “high standards” permanently.

European Union foreign ministers in Brussels approved a 46-page mandate for negotiations that stated Britain should “over time” use EU standards as its “reference point” in areas like the environment, state aid and employment rights.

Downing Street announced that the first round of talks will begin on Monday in Brussels, with a second round in London later in March.

The EU mandate said any deal should “uphold common high standards, and corresponding high standards over time with Union standards as a reference point”.

This would be required in “the areas of state aid, competition, state-owned enterprises, social and employment standards, environmental standards, climate change, relevant tax matters and other regulatory measures and practices in these areas”.

Chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier threw his weight behind an Irish call for Britain to start preparing for checks (REUTERS)

The EU document called for “robust commitments”, “mechanisms to ensure effective implementation” and a “governing body” - all at odds with the Prime Minister’s insistence that Britain must be free to set different rules in future.

Another clash opened up over the Northern Ireland border. Chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier threw his weight behind an Irish call for Britain to start preparing for checks on goods flowing from the mainland to the Province. Downing Street however rejected this, saying neither checks nor preparations would be needed.

In London, the Government’s XS committee met to set Britain’s mandate, due to be published on Thursday. It is expected to seek a Canada-style free trade agreement with a broad commitment to match European standards for the “level playing field” but stripped of binding alignment.

“The time pressure is immense. The interests are huge. It will be very hard work - a tough road ahead,” warned Dutch Foreign Minister Stef Blok.

In London, Mr Johnson was drawing up his own negotiating mandate at a meeting with Dublin Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said prospects for a deal this year would be “damaged significantly” if UK failed to begin building infrastructure needed for border checks.

Mr Johnson was drawing up his own negotiating mandate at a meeting with Dublin Foreign Minister Simon Coveney (REUTERS)

He was promptly backed by EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier who tweeted: “We will keep a very close eye on the implementation of the Withdrawal Agreement - this will be key for building a solid future partnership with the UK.”

A dispute over fishing, with France leading calls for Britain to barter rights to EU trawlers in return for better trade terms is another flashpoint.

Dublin Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said prospects for a deal this year would be “damaged significantly” if UK failed to begin building infrastructure needed for such checks.

He was promptly backed by EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier who tweeted: “We will keep a very close eye on the implementation of the Withdrawal Agreement - this will be key for building a solid future partnership with the UK.”

Responding to Mr Coveney, Downing Street sources stuck by the Prime Minister’s view that no checks will be needed. “The Protocol [on Northern Ireland] specifically allows the UK to ensure unfettered market access for goods moving from Northern Ireland to GB,” said a source. “We have not asked any ports to prepare for new checks or controls between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.”

On fisheries, the EU agreed to negotiate to "uphold the existing reciprocal access to waters" - a move at odds with the Government pledge to take control and boost the share for British fishermen.

Boris Johnson used a speech in Greenwich earlier this month to say, "British fishing grounds are first and foremost for British boats".

The EU document also include a controversial clause stating that 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 brought to Britain more than 200 years ago and now on display in the British Museum.

UK Negotiator David Frost and his team will head to Brussels for the first round of negotiations on March 2, armed with the UK's own mandate.

The tight time schedule for the talks remains an issue, with European ministers voicing concerns over the Prime Minister's unwillingness to extend the deadline beyond December.