European ministers have signed off on Brussels’ red lines for the forthcoming post-Brexit trade talks with the UK.
The proposals put into writing warnings by Michel Barnier, the European Union’s chief negotiator, that Britain must sign up to a “level playing field” in any free trade agreement.
The level playing field stipulation could see Brussels attempt to bounce the UK into following some EU rules and standards after the Brexit transition period ends in 2021, a concession the Prime Minister has already ruled out.
In its negotiation mandate, the EU stated that any future relationship with the UK should be “underpinned by robust commitments to ensure a level playing field for open and fair competition, given the EU and the UK’s geographic proximity and economic interdependence”.
On fisheries, the EU General Affairs Council, at its meeting on Tuesday morning, also agreed to negotiate to “uphold the existing reciprocal access to waters” – a move that is set to flare tensions with Brexiteers and British fishermen.
Croatian Europe minister Andreja Metelko-Zgombic said the EU is “ready” to commence trade talks now its mandate had been ratified.
He said: “The council has adopted a clear and strong mandate for our negotiator, Michel Barnier.
“This confirms our readiness to offer an ambitious, wide-ranging and balanced partnership to the UK for the benefit of both sides.
“The EU is now ready to start negotiations.”
The terms 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.
Greece has been vocal about demanding the return of the marble sculptures, which once adorned the Greek Parthenon temple, to Athens.
Downing Street has insisted that the future of the marbles is “not up for discussion as part of our trade negotiations”.
British ministers are expected to seek a Canada-style agreement with zero tariffs, a proposal Mr Johnson and his Europe adviser, David Frost, have set out in speeches in recent weeks.
But the push for a Canada-style deal could set up a clash with the EU after Mr Barnier ruled out such an agreement.
He has previously said the UK is too close in proximity to be permitted to compete with the other 27 member states on such terms.
Mr Frost and his team will head to Brussels for the first round of negotiations on March 2, after being 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.
“The time pressure is immense, the interests are huge – it’s a very complicated treaty – so it will be very hard work. A tough road ahead,” he told reporters.
Simon Coveney, Ireland’s foreign minister, said the EU was making a “generous and fair” offer to the UK, but warned Mr Johnson not to renege on the commitments made in the Withdrawal Agreement.
His comments follow reports that the Prime Minister has ordered his Brexit team to find ways to “get around” the Northern Ireland protocol which aims to avoid the introduction of a hard border on the island of Ireland.
The PM is expected to meet Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz at Number 10 on Tuesday as part of his diplomatic efforts with EU leaders before talks commence.