UK chief negotiator bleats EU not offering us a ‘fair’ trade deal

David Frost and Michel Barnier
Photo: Barnier/TWITTER

The British government is discovering what it is to be a third country. Having published its near 300-page draft legal text yesterday, after the third round of talks ended last week with “very little progress”, our chief negotiator has now written to Michel Barnier complaining the EU is not offering us what we want.

David Frost’s four-page letter is testament to the blind hubris that has characterised the UK position since talks began nearly three years ago in June 2017.

The legal text exposes the government’s claims to be negotiating a standard, bare-bones deal as “plain wrong” according to one expert. We are in many areas asking for unique and unprecedented access to the single market, revealing just how important it is to us.  It appears that we have belatedly recognised the damage a no deal exit would do to an economy already headed for the worst recession in three hundred years.

After three rounds of negotiations Frost claims he still finds the EU position “perplexing”. One has to ask what it is that they have been talking about?

Frost describes himself on Twitter as “Sherpa and EU adviser to Prime Minister”. He now appears to have gone freelance advising the EU what they should be offering us. His letter is remarkably arrogant; almost to the point of demanding the EU justifies its position to him. He seems to throw a diplomatic tantrum and ends by telling Barnier that, “what is on offer is not a fair free trade relationship between close economic partners”, as if the EU is under some sort of obligation to help us avoid the consequences of our own folly.

Peter Foster, formerly of the Telegraph and now public policy editor at the Financial Times tweeted:

Sam Lowe, senior research fellow at the Centre for European Reform and a trade policy expert was more explicit. He tweeted : “And as ever, shouting ‘it’s not fair!’ is not a winning negotiation strategy.”

Having gone through the draft UK text several commentators have begun to point out the many flaws and anomalies both in the draft treaty and in Frost’s four-page letter to Barnier.  Contradictions between the British government’s very modest declared objectives and the unprecedented demands now revealed in the draft treaty have become embarrassingly obvious.

David Henig, director at the European Centre For International Political Economy, a trade expert and a prolific Twitter user, pointed out that two hours before publication Michael Gove was complaining the EU wanted the UK to keep following its rules when it’s clear from the newly published texts that we want to continue to enjoy the benefits of the single market. 

Iana Dreyer, at UK Trade Forum, an independent group of trade policy experts, gave the best summary on a Twitter thread:

The thread is shown unrolled HERE.

The argument that we are asking for a simple, standard deal is “plain wrong” says Dreyer, adding that in cross-border financial services, mutual acceptance of prudential regulations is “unprecedented” in any free trade agreement.

Mutual equivalence of food safety regulations known as SPS, plus road haulage based on UK standards, is also apparently “without precedent”. Britain is even asking the EU to drop its demands over geographical indicators already enshrined in Article 54 of the treaty that Johnson signed only four months ago! This covers unique product names like champagne or edam cheese, something that would make a US-UK trade deal easier.

Dreyer claims the UK is completely ignoring precedents set by EU agreements with its neighbours and is talking as if the UK did not share a land border with Ireland. He says all countries with an EU land border, Russia excepted, align with EU rules as a prerequisite for market access.

Several commentators, including Dreyer, make the point that Britain’s demands are not irrational or uninteresting in themselves, but that we should expect to pay a high price in terms of what the EU will ask in return.

Dreyer says Britain should learn how other nations like Australia and New Zealand behave, stop “grandstanding” and “get real”. The insistence on being recognised as sovereign equal is, he says, “actually painful to watch” and sends the opposite message which, along with demands on food standards, financial services and other conditions, actually highlights “how vulnerable UK is to no deal”.

The historian Helene Von Bismarck tweeted on the question of sovereign equals:

The government also published a series of other draft texts for separate agreements, among which are ones on:

  • Fisheries (based on a forty-year-old agreement with Norway)
  • Civil aviation safety (based on equivalence)
  • Air transport
  • Energy
  • Law enforcement and judicial cooperation.

The fisheries text is interesting because it talks of annual negotiations on quotas based on scientific evidence and doesn’t rule out foreign vessels operating in British waters, only that they should be “authorised”.

These would all be separate stand-alone treaties, something the EU have repeatedly made clear they will not accept. The EU’s relationship with Switzerland is governed by more than 100 separate bilateral agreements with a proviso that the breaching of one means they all fall. Brussels has been pressing the Swiss to accept a single overarching agreement so is unlikely to go down the road of separate bilateral deals with the UK, a much larger economy. The British government has known this from the outset so it’s a surprise they insist on demanding something they know the EU will never concede.

Frost’s whingeing letter only made clear now who needs whom the most.

Michel Barnier has yet to respond but his reply should be very interesting.