Brexit: France hints at compromise with UK over divergence from EU standards

·6-min read
<span>Photograph: Florian Wieser/EPA</span>
Photograph: Florian Wieser/EPA

France will back a trade deal allowing the UK to diverge from EU standards but the bloc should not be time-pressured into agreeing damaging terms in the final hours, France’s European affairs minister has said, as the Brexit negotiations restarted in Brussels.

Clément Beaune, a close ally of the French president, Emmanuel Macron, repeated the threat of a French veto amid divisions among the 27 member states over the necessity of a deal this year, but hinted at a compromise on the thorniest issue.

“The British want access to the single European market without constraints for their social, environmental or health standards, which is unacceptable,” he said. “For our part, we are ready to put in place a system in which a divergence of standards would be allowed but beyond which corrective measures would be taken.

“The British tell us that this is unfair because other third countries do not have these same constraints, such as Canada. But we have to realise that the UK will be our major trading partner outside the EU tomorrow. There is 10 times as much trade between the EU and UK than with Canada. It is therefore normal to seek guarantees that they will not engage in unacceptable dumping.”

The EU’s demand for a mechanism to ensure the UK is not able to undercut European businesses through diverging from Brussels on environmental, labour and social standards has dogged the negotiations.

Downing Street claimed that Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, tabled fresh demands last week that would have effectively have forced the UK to align with the EU, a claim dismissed by officials in Brussels.

Beaune’s comments highlight the complex compromise that the negotiators are trying to craft: provisions that both recognise that the UK is free to make its own rules but that also protect the single market from goods produced with a lower cost base due to differences in regulations.

Downing Street fears that allowing the EU to unilaterally put tariffs on British goods where there is divergence will put an inappropriate onus on policymakers in Whitehall to follow Brussels’ lead.

The UK has also yet to agree to non-regression over current standards over differences about the definition of the “common high standards”, and means of correction where an agreement is breached.

Efforts are under way to find a compromise but divisions have emerged between countries such as Germany and Ireland, who believe it is vital to sign a deal this year, and the Élysée Palace, where Macron is of the opinion that it might be better to restart talks in 2021 than rush into a hasty agreement that will set European businesses back in decades to come.

“The British tell us that they would only need 24 hours to do this [ratify], but we must also think about the time that will be needed to explain this agreement to our companies,” Beaune said. “So in the coming days, we will have to decide either to continue to negotiate or go ahead with no deal. Because if this is the case, it is better to know now than at Christmas.”

“Within the EU27 there are different sensitivities – it would be naive to deny it”, he said. “We will not give in to time pressure. We will not accept an agreement at all costs on the pretext that we are getting closer to the deadline.

“As for the [German] chancellor [Angela Merkel], she wants a deal, but she also defends our demands – and she knows the European market well enough to guess how the German economy would suffer from a bad deal.”

The troubled talks restarted on Sunday after Boris Johnson and the European commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, found reason to believe a deal was still possible during a phone call on Sunday evening.

The negotiation had been paused by the two chief negotiators – David Frost and Barnier – on Friday after they were unable to bridge the gaps between the sides on rules to ensure fair competition, fishing access in UK waters and a system for dispute resolution.

“We’re going to be working very hard to try and get a deal,” Frost told reporters as he arrived at Brussels-Midi train station. “We’re going to see what happens in negotiations today and we will be looking forward to meeting our European colleagues later this afternoon.”

Ireland’s foreign affairs minister, Simon Coveney, said the trade and security deal running to over 600 pages of legal text was “97 or 98%” adding that “we are more likely to get a deal than not”.

The UK environment secretary, George Eustice, said the prime minister would have to “take a position in the next few days” on whether a Brexit deal could be struck.

In interviews on Sunday morning, Eustice echoed reports overnight that the cabinet had agreed to back a decision to leave the transition period on 31 December without a trade and security deal.

Eustice told Sky News’ Sophy Ridge on Sunday the government was planning to reinstate parts of the internal market bill that break international law – but also accused the EU of taking a “ludicrous” position on fishing rights that was not consistent with the same laws.

He told Ridge talks were “in a very difficult position – there is no point denying that”.

“There was some hope early last week progress was being made, and at one point it looked like there might be a breakthrough but then the European Union added a whole load of additional demands after that which caused some problems.

“We will continue to work on these negotiations until there is no point doing so any further but there is no point denying that what happened late last week was a setback.”

On Sunday morning, unnamed cabinet ministers who had supported remain in the Brexit referendum were quoted in the Sunday Times as giving Boris Johnson their “rock-solid” support if he concluded that no-deal was necessary.

One said: “The PM should do what is best. He has total, 100% rock-solid cabinet support.”

Another cabinet remainer said: “I’d much rather we had a deal but he’s got a no-deal mandate if that is his judgment.”

Eustice told the BBC’s Andrew Marr: “We probably are now in the final few days in terms of being able to decide whether there can be an agreement.

“If the ambience warms up again and actually great progress is made and it’s just about sorting out the detail you can always find more time, you can always extend. But unless we can resolve these quite fundamental divergences at the moment then we are going to have to take a position in the next few days.”

Eustice said the EU’s demands on future fishing rights were “ludicrous” and would mean the bloc would have access to British waters “in perpetuity”.

He claimed the industry would be able to handle tariffs imposed under a no-deal scenario but that such tariffs could be unmanageable for farmers, saying: “The main species we export, the levels of tariffs on fish, unlike agriculture actually, are manageable.”

He also acknowledged there would be “some impact” on food prices if no trade deal was done. “There will be some impact on prices but the analysis that has been done by some of the economic modellers is that it is quite modest – less than 2% as a result of tariffs,” he said.

“It would be higher on some things such as beef and pork but those make up a relatively small proportion of the overall family shop.”

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting