EU warns UK Brexit course undermines trade deal hopes

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Apparent plans by the UK to diverge from EU norms after Brexit will crimp its future relationship with the European bloc, the European Parliament’s Brexit coordinator warned Wednesday.

“We are not stupid. We are not going to kill our companies by saying ‘OK, you can enter with your goods into our market free of tariffs but you don’t have to comply with our standards’,” Guy Verhofstadt told a parliamentary committee.

He said that, alongside fraught talks on a divorce agreement between Britain and the EU, mooted changes by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government to an aspirational “political declaration” on future ties between both sides also pose a problem.

While the EU side was happy with the previous political declaration worked out with Johnson’s predecessor, technical talks are now heading in “an opposite direction.”

Verhofstadt said Britain wanted less of a “level playing field” when it comes to mirroring EU standards, with the apparent aim of undercutting European competitors by doing away with compliance to labour, environmental and tax standards.

As a result, he said, “the more divergence the UK is looking for in the future relationship, the less access there will be to the single market, naturally.”

A free-trade agreement Britain wants to pursue with the EU would as a result be considerably less ambitious, he said.

“That is not a question of negotiating tactics by the EU, that is a logical consequence of protection of our single market,” Verhofstadt said.

Johnson wants to revisit the withdrawal agreement struck by his predecessor Theresa May after it repeatedly failed to win approval by Britain’s parliament.

But Verhofstadt warned that informal British proposals suggesting the British province of Northern Ireland partly align with EU agri-food standards were insufficient to avoid a border with EU member Ireland.

“We cannot say that legally operative alternatives have been put on the table” to a backstop for the border set out in the current withdrawal agreement, he said.

He also highlighted problems faced by EU citizens living in the UK, and British citizens living in EU member states, to register for residency rights despite provisions covering that issue in the withdrawal agreement.