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Michel Barnier blasts UK chief negotiator’s ‘tone’ and calls for ‘constructive engagement’ amid Brexit talks deadlock

Michel Barnier hit back at David Frost.

4 min read

The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator has attacked his UK counterpart’s “tone” and called for more “constructive engagement” amid deadlocked talks between the two sides.

Michel Barnier hit back after a letter from David Frost accused the bloc of offering Britain only a “low-quality trade agreement coming with unprecedented EU oversight of our laws and institutions”.

A fresh round of talks on the future relationship ended in acrimony last week, with the two sides at loggerheads over issues including fisheries, state aid and the role of the European Court of Justice.

In his letter to Mr Barnier, the UK’s top negotiator said: “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. 

“I do hope that in the weeks to come the EU will think again about its proposals in a way that will enable us to then find a rapid and constructive alternative way forward.”

But Mr Barnier said in his own missive sent on Wednesday evening: “I share your commitment to helping the process move forward together.

"I do not think, however, that an exchange of letters regarding the substance of the negotiations is necessarily the best way to discuss on substantial points. 

“It cannot be a substitute for serious engagement and detailed negotiations and, in particular, I would not like the tone that you have taken to impact the mutual trust and constructive attitude that is essential between us.”

Rejecting a string of claims about the EU’s position contained in Mr Frost’s letter, Mr Barnier insisted the bloc had “remained faithful” to the political declaration setting out aims for the talks which was signed at the end of last year.

“Our ambition is to achieve, as part of our comprehensive economic partnership, a free trade agreement, with no tariffs or quotas on any goods,” he said.

But Mr Barnier warned: “Of course, our new trading relationship will never be as fluid as the current situation within the Single Market or the Customs Union. 

“This reflects a sovereign and independent UK choice, which we respect and do not question. Such a choice comes with consequences.”

The next round must bring [...] new dynamism in order to avoid a stalemate.

Saying the EU and UK were “equally sovereign” and therefore would both want to “set the conditions for access to their respective markets”, Mr Barnier said there was “no automatic entitlement to any benefits that the EU may have offered or granted in other contexts and circumstances to other, often very different, partners”.

The UK has repeatedly pointed to deals the EU has struck with countries including Canada and Japan as a model for the kind of relationship Britain wants to seal with the bloc post-Brexit.

But Mr Barnier said: “Every agreement that the EU has concluded is unique, with its own balance of rights and obligations, tailored to the partner and era in which it is concluded. There is no model, no uniform precedent to follow in EU trade policy.”

And he added: “Just as we do not accept selective benefits in the Single Market without the corresponding obligations, we also do not accept cherry picking from our past agreements.

"The EU is looking to the future, not to the past, in these negotiations.”

A key point of contention in the talks meanwhile remains Britain’s objection to a raft of “level playing field” provisions demanded by the EU in exchange for market access.

The two sides previously agreed “prevent distortions of trade and unfair competitive advantages”, with Brussels calling on the UK to maintain consistent standards with it on workers’ rights, state aid, tax and environmental protection as part of allowing high access to its single market.

Mr Frost accused the EU of pushing “novel and unbalanced proposals which would bind this country to EU law or standards”.

But, hitting back, Mr Barnier said the “geographic proximity and economic interdependence” of Britain and the EU required “robust level playing field safeguards”.

He added: “This does not mean that the UK would be bound by EU law after the end of the transition period in these areas; the UK will remain entirely free to set its own higher standards. But we need to give ourselves concrete, mutual and reciprocal guarantees for this to happen.”

The EU’s negotiator meanwhile pushed back at criticism of the bloc’s proposals on law enforcement and judicial cooperation, saying the bloc had “never previously offered such a close and broad security partnership with any third country” outside the border-free Schengen area.

And he said: “The next round must bring [...] new dynamism in order to avoid a stalemate.

“I remain convinced that with mutual respect and constructive engagement by the UK across the board, on all issues on the negotiating table, we can move forward in the limited available time.”

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