EU and British positions harden ahead of Brexit talks

European member states approve common negotiating guidelines for next stage of talks with UK

The 27 states of the European Union approved common negotiating guidelines for the next stage of Brexit talks on Monday, after agreeing to push the United Kingdom to stick to EU "standards as a reference point".

The mandate is set to be adopted on Tuesday as the playbook for chief negotiator Michel Barnier and his team, after ambassadors reached a compromise on the so-called level playing field issue, which had been a sticking point.

France had sought greater assurances that the UK would not be allowed to undercut the single market by slashing standards and shrugging off state aid restrictions after it exits the transitional period at the end of this year.

“It’s about having something that stands the test of time, not just on January 1st, 2021, but in the years to come,” an EU source told The Irish Times. “We managed to agree on sticking to EU standards as a reference point.”


In the meeting, the French ambassador requested that the negotiating guidelines be tweaked to aim for a deal that achieves a close trading relationship while preventing the UK diverging from too much from EU norms over time.

After a break in the talks, a compromise version was proposed, and agreed unanimously by the 27.

Robust commitments

“Given the [European] Union and the UK’s geographic proximity and economic interdependence, the envisaged partnership must ensure open and fair competition, encompassing robust commitments to ensure a level playing field,” the revised text of the negotiating guidelines reads.

“These commitments should prevent distortions of trade and unfair competitive advantages so as to ensure a sustainable and long-lasting relationship between the parties.”

The areas covered include “state aid, competition, state-owned enterprises, social and employment standards, environmental standards, climate change, and relevant tax matters and other regulatory measures and practices in these areas,” the text stated.

The mandate is due to be made public and officially signed off by ministers of the member states including Tánaiste Simon Coveney and European Affairs Minister Helen McEntee at a gathering in Brussels on Tuesday, in the hopes negotiations can start within weeks.

There are indications the talks may be rocky. On Monday, Downing Street briefed that the UK would not “extend the the transition period or accept any arrangements that subordinate us to EU rules”.

Future relationship

The priority of the government and prime minister Boris Johnson was to "restore our economic and political independence", a spokesman said.

The UK and the EU have only the rest of the year to agree a complex deal on trade and their future relationship, which will have deep implications for our economy, and for checks and controls on goods traversing the Irish Sea.

The Irish Sea border may re-emerge as a sticking point in talks. The EU indicated its position would depend on whether existing agreements are enacted, after the Johnson government briefed that it would not enforce checks it signed off on last year.

“We are going to be very vigilant in terms of seeing the withdrawal agreement is properly implemented,” the official said. “If it seems that what’s already agreed isn’t implemented, that has an impact on trust and how the other side is perceived.”

Naomi O’Leary

Naomi O’Leary

Naomi O’Leary is Europe Correspondent of The Irish Times