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Barnier has the Final Word this Week

Last week, the UK Government published its draft legal agreement and proposition on the Northern Ireland protocol. The latter has prompted a somewhat terse written response from the EU’s Chief Negotiator, Michel Barnier.

In his letter, Mr Barnier put forward three points of concern to the EU.

First, he cited the political declaration and the UK divergence from it. He reminded the UK that it is not automatically entitled to any benefits the EU has offered in other contexts to other trading partners and that the EU is neither willing to accept selective benefits in the Single Market (without the ‘corresponding obligations’) nor cherry picking from past agreements.

Second, he expressed concern over the UK’s insistence on moving away from the level playing field and ‘high quality access’ to the single market. The EU is concerned with the risk of the UK distorting trade, particularly due to unforeseen change in its geographical proximity to the EU. The EU therefore insists that the UK upholds the common high standards on policy issues such as the environment, tax and employment standards, though welcomes the UK to set its own higher standards. This must be assured through ‘concrete, mutual and reciprocal guarantees’.

Third, he stated that the EU has, in multiple ways, exceeded precedent within the existing proposal which is on the table. This is particularly with regard to law enforcement and judicial cooperation. A number of third countries have agreements with and desk officers at Europol and Eurojust. The EU is concerned, however, that the UK’s demands in terms of access to databases goes too far.

While carefully and diplomatically worded, this letter denotes a shift in rhetoric that reflects a growing tension in negotiations between the EU and UK. Such change in language was also demonstrated during Mr Barnier’s speech on 15 May, as he welcomed the UK’s new text proposals. With phrases such as ‘with the exception of some modest overtures, we failed’, ‘despite its claims, the United Kingdom did not engage’ and ‘disappointed by the UK’s lack of ambition’, it is clear that Barnier’s frustrations are being made more public. Whether this is a negotiation tactic or simply a slip, both negotiating teams should be careful to remember the consequences of not being able to achieve a compromise.

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