Britain readies tough stance in EU trade talks

4 min

London (AFP)

Britain on Sunday began to detail a hardline stance in upcoming negotiations with the European Union on future relations, following its historic departure from the bloc.

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, who will embark on a tour of Asia and Australia next week as he looks to pave the way for global trade deals, warned that London will not accept alignment with EU rules.

He also insisted that European courts could have no jurisdiction over Britain beyond the 11-month Brexit transition period that runs to the end of the year.

"We're not going to be aligning with EU rules, that's not on the negotiating table... it is not even in the negotiating room," Raab told the BBC.

"We will not be insisting that they align with our rules as a price for a free trade deal" he added in a separate interview with Sky News.

"That's not the way free trade deals are done."

But in a sign of the potentially fraught nature of the high-stakes talks, Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar urged London to "tone down the kind of nationalistic rhetoric".

Britain should avoid repeating the past mistake of insisting on "rigid red lines" which "makes it hard to come to an agreement", he said.

- 'Infuriated' -

Late on Friday, Britain ended almost half a century of often reluctant membership of an organisation set up to forge unity among nations after the horrors of World War II.

It immediately entered an 11-month transition period agreed as part of the divorce, during which there will be little change in practical terms.

Britons will be able to work in the EU and trade freely -- and vice versa -- until December 31, although the UK will no longer be represented in the bloc's institutions.

Legally however, Britain is out, and attention is now turning to what may prove to be gruelling talks with Brussels this year to hammer out all aspects of the future partnership.

In speeches by Prime Minister Boris Johnson in London and EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier in Brussels, each side will set out its position on Monday.

British newspapers reported Sunday that the government was readying for a bruising battle, and unwilling to offer many of the compromises set to be demanded by the bloc.

The eurosceptic Sunday Telegraph said Johnson was "privately infuriated" at perceived EU attempts "to frustrate a comprehensive free trade deal".

Raab acknowledged there was "a bit of frustration" in London that "commitments" seen as already agreed in the initial Brexit divorce deal were not being "lived up to".

- Canada-style deal -

Johnson, a polarising figure accused of glossing over the complexity of leaving the EU, is in a rush to seal an agreement.

He has vowed not to extend the transition phase, giving himself just 11 months to find consensus on everything from fishing to finance -- not enough time, according to his critics.

The British premier wants to pursue a minimal trade deal -- dubbed Canada-style, in reference to the EU's existing agreement with Ottawa -- that envisages zero tariffs and quotas on goods.

But Britain makes no binding commitment on maintaining EU standards.

EU negotiators, who fear being undercut on their own doorstep, consider that far too narrow for an important neighbour like Britain.

Barnier has warned that some items will have to be a priority and wants handshakes on fisheries, internal and external security and, above all, trade in goods.

- 'New era' -

London is also now free to strike trade agreements around the world, including with the United States, whose President Donald Trump is an enthusiastic Brexit supporter.

One of his top envoys on Friday hailed an "exciting new era".

At a special Brexit day ministers' meeting in northeast England, Johnson discussed an aim to get 80 percent of Britain's commerce covered by trade agreements within three years, a spokesman said.

Raab confirmed Sunday that he would embark on a tour of Asia and Australia next week, a trip encompassing Japan, Singapore and Malaysia.

The Foreign Office declined to release further details.

The Sunday Telegraph reported that a trade deal is earmarked to be agreed with Japan by Christmas, followed by more agreements with Australia and New Zealand in mid-2021.