Michel Barnier is expected to obtain a negotiating mandate on Monday to advance Brexit and the negotiation of an agreement between the United Kingdom and the European Union. - Francois Lenoir / AP / SIPA

A first step to launch the exit negotiations from the Union? It is this Monday that EU member states must approve the mandate of their negotiator Michel Barnier, setting their conditions to offer an "unprecedented" trade relationship in the United Kingdom, which will find it difficult to accept them. This mandate, the result of discussions between capitals, will still have to be formally adopted Tuesday at a ministerial meeting.

First talks in early March

But its finalization is a decisive step, because it opens the way for the first talks in early March between the EU and the United Kingdom, just over a month after his departure on January 31. London and Brussels have only a few months before the end of the year to agree on their future relationship, the time of the transition period during which the British continue to apply European rules.

Emmanuel Macron on Saturday expressed doubts about the possibility of a global agreement by the end of the year. "I am not sure," said the French president. "Anyway, it's going to be tight because (the British) are very tough," he warned. The two parties undertook, in a "political declaration" signed at the end of last year, to conclude "an ambitious partnership", with "firm commitments" guaranteeing "fair" competition.

Counterparties requested by the EU

This common position has, however, been widely distended since. Europeans remain open to a broad partnership, including a trade agreement without quotas or customs duties. But they hardened the tone - under pressure from France - on the compensation requested. Fearing more than all of the UK's unfair competition, they demand that it continue to comply with certain EU rules "over time", in particular with regard to state aid, the environment and the law. of labor and taxation.

This demand, unprecedented in a free trade agreement, is explained by the geographic proximity and the strong economic integration of London with the continent. It has already been swept away last week by the British Brexit negotiator, David Frost. "It is essential for us to be able to establish laws that suit us (...) This is the very objective of the whole project", insisted David Frost during a recent intervention in Brussels.

What will the agreement look like?

The British now seem to be content with a basic trade agreement, like those negotiated by the EU with Canada or Japan, but which would preserve their ability to freely regulate their economy. "In short, all we want is what other independent countries benefit from," said David Frost. Even a "no deal", with its heavy implications for the economy, in particular sometimes high customs duties, does not seem to scare them, if the British negotiator is to be believed. In this context, the short negotiation to come - barely ten three-week discussion cycles - looks already tense.

"We must be clear: the political declaration, which was agreed word for word, line by line, with (the British Prime Minister) Boris Johnson last October, remains and will remain the foundation of all negotiations", has not ceased to repeat Michel Barnier in recent days.

Fishing, a subject of contention

Optimist, a senior European official insists on the way in which Boris Johnson had abruptly softened his speech when negotiating the departure from the United Kingdom at the end of 2019. Nevertheless, the conditions of competition, the friction between London and Brussels is not lacking, like the future place of British financial services in the EU or the ultra-sensitive issue of fishing. On this last point, the Europeans' mandate insists that the future agreement must "maintain reciprocal access" to the territorial waters of the two countries, which seems difficult to accept for London.

The EU would also like the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) to keep the last word to interpret Union law, in the event of a dispute between London and Brussels, which the United Kingdom refuses.


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