UK eyes EU trade deal ‘as soon as possible’

A flag depicting the British Union Jack design and the EU design is seen outside of the Houses of Parliament in London, January 14, 2019. — Reuters pic
A flag depicting the British Union Jack design and the EU design is seen outside of the Houses of Parliament in London, January 14, 2019. — Reuters pic

LONDON, Oct 23 — Britain said today it was targeting a post-Brexit trade deal with the European Union “as soon as possible”, after France suggested an intensive new schedule of talks could extend past the bloc’s October 31 deadline.

The negotiations resumed in London yesterday after Britain dropped a threat by Prime Minister Boris Johnson to walk away, and the latest round is due to conclude on Sunday. 

But both sides have vowed to keep talking after that, with a transition period expiring at the end of the year and the possible threat of severe economic dislocation looming if no deal is agreed

France’s Europe Minister Clement Beaune said the EU wanted to wrap up the discussions by October 31 to leave enough time for parliamentary ratification across the bloc’s 27 member states.

“We’ll give it a few days more (into November) to give a chance for the negotiations, but we need to know fairly quickly,” he told the BFM Business network on Thursday. 

Beaune again pressed Britain to give ground on key issues including the right for French and other EU fishermen to continue operating in UK waters.

The UK had wanted a deal by mid-October, but that deadline has already slipped and when asked about Beaune’s remarks, Johnson’s official spokesman told reporters today: “We want to reach an agreement based on what we set out as soon as possible.”

He said UK negotiator David Frost and EU counterpart Michel Barnier were “now discussing legal texts across all the areas for the first time”. 

“We’ve been clear in our ambitions for the negotiations. We want to reach an FTA (free trade agreement) which respects us as a sovereign nation,” said the spokesman. “That continues to be the case.”

Other sticking points remain “level playing field” provisions to ensure Britain does not try to retreat from the EU’s environmental or labour standards, state subsidies and how to arbitrate future differences.

Britain left the EU in January but remains bound by most of its rules and regulations until the end of 2020 under its divorce terms. 

If the talks fail, the UK will end the transition on a barebones arrangement with the EU governed by World Trade Organisation quotas and tariffs.

And even with a trade deal, British companies will still need to wade through reams of new red tape to ensure their goods comply with EU standards. 

The government has meanwhile secured continuity arrangements with four non-EU partners in Europe including Norway and Switzerland, and today signed a post-Brexit pact with Japan.

“It used to be said that an independent UK would not be able to strike independent trade deals, or they would take years to conclude,” International Trade Minister Liz Truss said in Tokyo. “But today we prove the naysayers wrong.”

British-Japanese trade was worth nearly US$40 billion (RM166.1 billion) last year, a figure dwarfed by the US$670 billion value of Britain’s imports and exports with the EU. — AFP

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