UK Politics

Government publishes 'approach' to post-Brexit trade deal with the EU

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Media captionMichael Gove says the EU wants access to UK fishing grounds, while restricting British access to its markets.

A minister has accused the EU of holding up post-Brexit trade talks with its "ideological approach" as the UK publishes legal texts for negotiations.

Michael Gove said the third round of talks with the bloc - which ended on Friday - were "constructive".

But he said there were "significant differences of principle", and it "remained difficult to reach a mutually beneficial agreement".

The EU's chief negotiator has warned the UK's demands are "not realistic".

Speaking on Friday, Michel Barnier said he was "still determined but not optimistic" about agreeing a deal.

The UK left the EU on 31 January, entering an 11-month transition period, where the country continues to follow a number of the bloc's rules while negotiating a trade deal.

The government has repeatedly ruled out extending the transition period, and has said it will go onto trading with the EU on World Trade Organisation rules comes 2021 if no agreement has been reached.

But critics have said this could damage the UK economy.

On Tuesday, the government published 13 documents "setting out our approach to our future relationship with the European Union", including its outline of a free trade agreement - which "draws on previous EU agreements" with the likes of Canada, Japan and South Korea.

It has also proposed a separate agreement on fisheries, on law enforcement, and in technical areas covering aviation, energy and civil nuclear cooperation.

It said its approach was based on "friendly cooperation between sovereign equals" and "represents our clear and unwavering view that the UK will always have control of its own laws, political life and rules."

But Mr Barnier has said the EU is not prepared to "copy and paste" aspects of existing agreements with other countries or do sector-by-sector deals "rooted in past precedents".

'Perplexing'

In a letter to Mr Barnier on Tuesday, the UK's chief Brexit negotiator David Frost said the UK's proposals were similar to agreements the EU had reached with other countries and that it was "perplexing" the EU was "insisting on additional, unbalanced, and unprecedented provisions in a range of areas, as a precondition for agreement between us".

"Overall, we find it hard to see what makes the UK, uniquely among your trading partners, so unworthy of being offered the kind of well-precedented arrangements commonplace in modern FTAs [free trade agreements].

"Your text contains novel and unbalanced proposals which would bind this country to EU law or standards."

He adds: "It does not have to be like this.

"I remain convinced that it would be very straightforward for us to agree a modern and high-quality FTA and other separate agreements, like those you have agreed with other close partners around the world, and that we could do so quickly."

The sense of urgency around these negotiations, which have had to take place in the midst of the pandemic, is increasing.

The UK has now published its draft legal text of a future free trade agreement with the EU - the European Commission published its version two months ago.

The differences between the two sides are well known and both will have to give some ground if progress is to be made before a summit to review the negotiations takes place next month.

The government has also published a new tariff schedule for countries with which it doesn't have a free trade deal, to take effect at the end of the post-Brexit transition period.

A variety of imported products - from garden shears to dishwashers to mirrors - will be cheaper after 1 January. The government says tariffs will be scrapped altogether on £30bn of imports.

But if no deal is done with the EU, then the price of cars and food imported from Europe will suddenly become considerably more expensive.

Answering an urgent question from Labour on last week's discussions with the EU, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Mr Gove said there remained differences between the two sides - notably on fisheries and the so-called "level-playing field" rules.

A level-playing field is a term for a set of common rules and standards that prevent businesses in one country undercutting their rivals and gaining a competitive advantage over those operating in other countries.

Mr Gove told MPs: "The EU essentially wants us to obey the rules of their club, even though we are no longer members, and they want the same access to our fishing grounds as they currently have, while restricting our access to their markets.

"It remains difficult to reach a mutually beneficial agreement while the EU maintains such an ideological approach."

But the minister said he believed with "flexibility" from the bloc, an agreement could be reached before the deadline.

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Media captionPete Wishart: government is making a "pig's ear" of negotiations for a trade deal with the EU.

The SNP's Pete Wishart accused the government of "wilfully piling on a second hammer blow to an economy already shattered by Covid in its obsessive pursuit of its hard Brexit agenda".

He added: "This government is doing nothing but playing political games with the future of millions of people by pursuing this anti-EU agenda at all costs."

'Uncertainty'

On Sunday, the SNP wrote a joint letter with the leaders of the Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru, the SDLP, the Green Party and the Alliance Party, appealing to Mr Barnier for a two-year extension to the transition period to allow time for "detailed and defining negotiations" after the coronavirus crisis.

However, Labour has not joined the call.

Asking the question to Mr Gove in the Commons, the shadow Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Rachel Reeves, said: "It was always a tight timetable but the government has made it clear that they are sticking to it, and we need them to get it right.

"We must not have uncertainty already being experienced right now."

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