Battle lines drawn for Brexit trade talks

The substance of the Brexit trade talks is due to be finalised as ministers on both sides of the Channel prepare to sign-off on their negotiation red lines.

The EU General Affairs Council is set to meet on Tuesday morning in Brussels to approve the bloc’s mandate for trade talks with the UK, which are gearing up to start next month.

The announcement on Brussels’ agreed terms, which could be controversial after earlier drafts contained what Downing Street read as a veiled reference to the Elgin Marbles, is expected in the afternoon.

In Westminster, the Brexit inner cabinet will also meet at Number 10 to discuss the UK’s negotiation stance.

Croatian Prime Minister visit to UK
Croatian Prime Minister visit to UK

The final agreement is then due to be published online and presented in Parliament on Thursday.

Ministers are expected to commit to seeking a Canada-style agreement with zero tariffs, a proposal Boris Johnson and his Europe adviser David Frost have set out in speeches in recent weeks.

But the push for a Canada-style deal could set up a clash with the EU after its chief negotiator Michel Barnier ruled out such an agreement.

Mr Barnier has previously said the UK is too close in proximity to be permitted to compete with the other 27 member states on such terms.

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman, asked about the trade talks on Monday, said: “The UK’s primary objective in the negotiations is to ensure that we restore our economic and political independence on January 1 2021.”

Mr Frost and his team will head to Brussels for the first round of negotiations on March 2.

One of the flash points expected with the forthcoming publication of the EU’s negotiation mandate is on fishing, with leading member states speaking regularly about wanting continued access to UK waters.

Mr Johnson used a speech in Greenwich earlier this month to announce, once free of the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy, that “British fishing grounds are first and foremost for British boats”.

But French Europe minister Amelie de Montchalin signalled fishing would be a hotly contested topic when the two negotiating teams come to spar in London and Brussels over the coming months.

“The fishermen have the right to be protected, they know very well that if we sign a bad deal they will lose enormously,” she told TV station France 2.

A leaked draft of the EU negotiation mandate last week also included a stipulation Britain should “return unlawfully removed cultural objects to their countries of origin”.

Michel Barnier
Michel Barnier

The passage is thought to refer to the Elgin Marbles, ancient Greek sculptures taken to Britain more than 200 years ago and now on display in the British Museum.

Greece has been vocal about demanding the marble sculptures, once situated in the ancient Greek Parthenon temple, are returned to Athens.

Downing Street has insisted the future of the marbles is “not up for discussion as part of our trade negotiations”.

The PM is expected to meet with Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz in No 10 on Tuesday as part of his diplomatic efforts with EU leaders before talks commence.

On Monday, Mr Johnson discussed the negotiations with Croatian counterpart Andrej Plenkovic, whose country holds the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union.

Downing Street said the PM highlighted the UK was “not seeking a special or bespoke agreement, but rather one like those the EU has already struck with other friendly countries like Canada”.

The No 10 spokesman added: “He emphasised that the UK will not extend the transition period or accept any arrangements which subordinate us to EU rules.”