EU Council president presents guidelines for an agreement with the UK. Free trade is "core of economic relations".
Conciliatory: EU Council President Donald Tusk and British Prime Minister Theresa May Photo: ap
The European Union has for the first time committed itself to the goal of concluding a free trade agreement with Britain after the UK’s EU exit. This will be "the core of the economic relationship" between the EU and Britain after Brexit, according to the policy paper presented by EU Council President Donald Tusk in Brussels on Wednesday. The paper sets out the EU’s negotiating guidelines for an agreement on future relations with London. So far, substantial negotiations have been held only on the terms of exit, not on the period after.
A comprehensive free trade agreement with the EU is at the core of the British ideas for the post-Brexit period, as Prime Minister Theresa May has repeatedly outlined. From the British perspective, complete free trade would also render the dispute over the internal Irish border, which is not to be re-established as a "hard border," irrelevant.
So far, the EU had refused to commit itself. In this respect, Tusk’s paper represents a concession, especially after the confrontational tone of the EU Commission’s Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, last week. Under Tusk’s blueprint, a free trade agreement would allow duty-free trade in goods in all sectors without caps – the most far-reaching option.
In return, however, Tusk is demanding something that is likely to outrage the British: namely, the retention of existing reciprocal access to fishing waters and stocks. In the EU, all fishing fleets have access to all EU waters according to an annually negotiated quota system. The UK, with the largest fishing waters in Europe, is the loser here compared to the fleets of Spain and France. Linking free trade to free access to fish stocks would be "cherry-picking" from a Brexit perspective on the part of the EU, which for its part is happy to reject British demands for industry-specific regulations as cherry-picking.
On customs issues – a hot potato because of the question of the internal Irish border – Tusk seeks "appropriate cooperation" "while respecting the regulatory and legal autonomy of the parties." That is unspecific, but presumably rules out Barnier’s model of a special arrangement for Northern Ireland. For services – such as the financial sector – there is talk of "market access under the rules of the host country," which roughly corresponds to the existing relationship with the USA. This would not affect London’s role as the most important financial center of the other EU states.