A post-Brexit free trade agreement with the EU could be vetoed if the UK insists on the freedom to diverge from European standards and regulations, Brussels’s chief negotiator warned today.
Michel Barnier’s comments sparked fury among Brexiteers, who accused him of having “no intention” of ever securing a good deal.
Speaking at the Spanish Parliament in Madrid today, Mr Barnier said any deal which failed to preserve a level regulatory playing field would face “difficulties” in securing the ratification of national and regional parliaments – including his homeland of France.
Up to 38 national and regional legislatures in the EU will hold a veto on any trade deal and any one of them has the power to block it, he said.
A trade agreement with Canada almost collapsed in 2016 over a threatened veto from the Walloon parliament in Belgium.
Mr Barnier said that successful ratification could hinge on Britain’s willingness to maintain convergence with the rest of the EU on issues such as food standards, environmental protections, consumer rights and financial regulation.
In response Brexiteers accused Mr Barnier of “hamstringing” progress in talks between the UK and the EU.
Ukip MEP Ray Finch said: “It is clear that the Barnier, intransigent Eurocracy personified, has no intention of there ever being a decent deal.
“He would prefer the false fumes of other if victory over something that would benefit all, the UK and EU together.
“Memories of Belgian Wallonia hamstringing the deal between the EU and Canada most warm him at night. Sadly his actions will only recreate the poverty the EU imposed on Greece.”
The freedom to diverge from EU rules is viewed as a holy grail by supporters of a hard Brexit, who regard it as essential for the UK to strike new trade deals with the US and other economic powers around the world.
Mr Barnier said today: “The question is whether the British, as they leave the EU, will also leave its regulatory model in order to draw closer to the Americans or others.
“It’s an important question because it will determine the model for co-operation we adopt and the rules we will need to avoid regulatory competition or dumping.
“If we don’t find a solution to this question, I can imagine that in many countries – starting with my own – there will be difficulties in securing ratification of a trade deal with the English.
“If we want to succeed – and I hope to succeed – we need to find a way to guarantee what is called in English a ‘level playing field’.”
There was “no reason” why the EU would weaken its own social model to accommodate a UK desire to converge, he said.
Mr Barnier told Spanish MPs he believed it was possible for an EU/UK trade deal to be concluded within the expected two-year transition period after the date of Brexit in March 2019.
But he warned that the risk of a disorderly exit would remain until the withdrawal deal under Article 50 of the EU treaties is finalised and endorsed by the European Council, European Parliament and Westminster. National and regional parliaments do not hold a veto on the withdrawal agreement.
Asked what model London was seeking for the post-Brexit relationship, he replied: “I can’t tell you. I’m waiting for British proposals, but I have heard the red lines they have laid down.”