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EU economy chief lays out key issue for Brexit trade deal

Tom Belger
Finance and policy reporter
Former Italian prime minister Paolo Gentiloni outside Downing Street. Photo by Dinendra Haria / SOPA Images/Sipa USA

Britain has left itself a “very short” window to strike a free trade deal with the EU, a senior European official has warned.

But Paolo Gentiloni, economy commissioner at the European Commission, said the EU wanted the “best possible” relationship with the UK.

Britain will remain tied to EU rules for the rest of the year despite leaving the bloc on 31 January, ensuring a smooth departure as part of a transition period.

But the terms of Britain’s relationship with the EU beyond 2020, on everything from trade to security to data, remain up in the air.

READ MORE: EU wants ‘unprecedented’ trade deal with the UK

Prime minister Boris Johnson has vowed not to extend the transition period, to avoid alienating the most pro-Brexit Conservative MPs and voters. Ministers insist a longer-term deal can be struck before the deadline.

But Gentiloni said at a panel event at the Davos summit on Thursday that free trade agreements typically took significantly longer than a year.

Speaking at an event on Brexit at the gathering of world leaders in Switzerland, he also said Britain would have to remain closely aligned to EU rules to secure the best possible access.

Gentiloni said: “In the last couple of years we were rather uncertain on the outcome. Now the outcome is certain. We don’t like it, but it is there.

“We have a very short time for negotiation. Eleven months for a free trade agreement is really very short, if we look to other free trade agreements.”

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But he said said a deal was “still possible” in such record time, albeit it was “not easy.”

“The EU is ready to do all that’s in our power to have the best possible relation with the UK. Most of the results depend on the decision of the UK government.

“If the UK government wants to have very large access to the single market, if they want to have very good relations with the single market we are ready to do this,” he added.

He said the EU’s willingness to strike a deal rested on the UK committing to a “level playing field.”

Some EU officials and politicians fear Brexit could see Britain seeking competitive advantages over the EU, using its new freedoms to ditch EU standards in favour of rules more attractive to firms.

The EU is said to be particularly concerned about how the UK might benefit from reforming state aid and competition rules, tax, employment standards and environmental protections.

Gentiloni said: “We can’t have zero tariffs and dumping together. We can have zero tariffs and zero dumping.”

He did not give further details on dumping, but the term refers to the export of products at prices classed as unfairly low by the receiving country or bloc.