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Brexit Gets Personal as Officials Trade Barbs Amid High Tension

Ian Wishart

(Bloomberg) --

Relations between U.K. and European Union officials have been under strain for more than a month. This week, the tensions finally boiled over.

After Britain’s chief negotiator David Frost accused the EU of believing the U.K. is “unworthy” of anything more than a derisory deal, on Wednesday came his counterpart’s response: “I would not like the tone that you have taken to impact the mutual trust and constructive attitude that is essential.”

The spat between Frost, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s adviser, and his opposite number in Brussels, former French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier, serves only to underline how little the two men have achieved over the negotiating table. Next month’s key summit now looks certain to expose the deep divisions that still exist between the two sides.

Unless they can bridge them before before the U.K. severs ties with the bloc at the end of the year, Britain will leave the EU’s single market and customs union without a trade deal in place, spelling disruption and extra cost for businesses and consumers already reeling from the coronavirus.

At the heart of the disagreement is the U.K.’s unwillingness to accept EU rules the bloc says are necessary to stop the European economy from being undercut. Britain argues there is no precedent for this in other EU trade deals. The bloc says precedent is irrelevant because the EU hasn’t ever done a deal with a country geographically so close and economically so large as Britain before.

“The U.K. cannot expect high-quality access to the EU single market if it is not prepared to accept guarantees to ensure that competition remains open and fair,” Barnier wrote.

‘Cherry Picking’

And he resurrected a complaint he often made during negotiations on the U.K.’s divorce from the EU, accusing Frost of “cherry picking” the best bits from the bloc’s previous trade deals with other countries.

“There is no automatic entitlement to any benefits that the EU may have offered or granted in other contexts and circumstances to other, often very different, partners,” Barnier said.

Both sides say they want conclude a trade deal that would exclude all tariffs and quotas. But in his letter, Barnier doused any expectations the U.K. has of easing the conditions if it lowers its ambitions and pursues a more limited accord.

“The EU has always made clear that any future trade agreement between us will have to include strong level playing field guarantees, irrespective of whether it covers 98% or 100% of tariff lines,” Barnier said.

The two sides need a deal by the end of the year, when the U.K.’s transition period ends, to avoid reverting to World Trade Organization terms, which would mean the imposition of tariffs and quotas. A no-deal outcome would also lead to uncertainty in areas such as aviation, law enforcement, data sharing and fishing rights.

‘Unbalanced and Unprecedented’

In a four-page letter on Tuesday, Frost said it is “perplexing that the EU, instead of seeking to settle rapidly a high-quality set of agreements with a close economic partner, is instead insisting on additional, unbalanced, and unprecedented provisions in a range of areas, as a precondition for agreement between us.”

Talks between negotiators resume on June 1 before senior politicians are scheduled to meet later in the month. In a bid to break the deadlock, London has called for EU leaders to intervene and change Barnier’s negotiating mandate. But EU officials say there are no plans to put the matter before the bloc’s 27 leaders who would have to agree unanimously to rewrite Barnier’s mandate.

Meanwhile, disagreements over whether the U.K. is meeting obligations it signed up to in last year’s Brexit divorce agreement are threatening to further worsen the already fraught atmosphere.

On Wednesday, the U.K. published a document setting out how it will implement plans to avoid customs checks on the Irish border -- the most contentious issue in the negotiations over Britain’s departure.

The Brexit deal required that there are no customs checks on the Irish border, so the bloc wants rigorous inspections of goods entering Northern Ireland from the rest of Great Britain to protect the integrity of its single market -- but Johnson has previously said there will be no such customs checks.

Minimalist Checks

The U.K. said it will implement only minimal administrative checks on goods traveling from Great Britain into Northern Ireland and that no new physical customs infrastructure will be put in place. Companies moving goods in the other direction shouldn’t be required to submit export declarations.

That minimalist interpretation of the Northern Ireland protocol will be scrutinized carefully by EU officials, who have expressed concern about the lack of detail in the British document.

“The proposals that we put forward today mean there is no need for new customs infrastructure and, at the same time, Northern Ireland stays within the customs territory of the U.K.,” Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove told members of Parliament on Wednesday.

Britain argues that there is no need for Northern Irish companies to submit export declarations if they are sending goods to the rest of the U.K.

Traders moving goods into Northern Ireland from the mainland will still have to fill out electronic import declarations as well as safety and security information because the protocol requires the U.K. to implement the EU’s customs rules, the government said.

On Thursday, Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said that while the U.K. isn’t seeking to walk away from the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement, Johnson wants to use Northern Ireland as “leverage” in the wider trade talks.

Britain is “trying to use Northern Ireland to get a better trade deal for all the U.K., and they would do that, wouldn’t they?” he said in an interview with broadcaster Newstalk.

(Adds Varadkar comments in final two paragraphs.)

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