United Kingdom

Britain's trade negotiators hit back after Michel Barnier accused UK of 'backsliding'

The British Brexit trade team have accused Brussels chief negotiator Michel Barnier of behaving like a referee ‘when actually he is a player on the pitch’ after another week of testy talks.

The barb came after the Frenchman accused the UK’s lead negotiator David Frost of ‘backsliding’ on commitments made in last year’s Political Declaration on what Britain’s future trade relationship with the EU would look like.

After four days of discussion, both sides agreed there had been ‘no significant areas of progress’ and Mr Frost warned talks must ‘intensify and accelerate’ to avoid collapse.

Britain did, however, signal for the first time that levies on goods such as milk and lamb had been ‘floated’ in a notable climbdown on demands for ‘zero-tariff, frictionless’ trade with the bloc. 

The British Brexit trade team have accused Brussels chief negotiator Michel Barnier (pictured) of behaving like a referee ‘when actually he is a player on the pitch’ after another week of testy talks

And talks also made progress on protecting famous British regional products such as Scottish whisky and smoked salmon and stilton from EU imitations.

Yet at his Brussels press conference on Friday, a visibly irritated Mr Barnier accused the UK of trying to water down the non-legally binding commitments signed by Boris Johnson last autumn. 

‘We cannot and will not accept this backtracking on the Political Declaration,’ he said.

Mr Barnier (right) accused the UK’s lead negotiator David Frost (left) of ‘backsliding’ on commitments made in last year’s Political Declaration on what Britain’s future trade relationship with the EU would look like. Pictured: Mr Frost is welcomed prior to the first bilateral meeting to begin formal negotiations of the future relationship between the EU and UK on March 2

London hit back angrily, accusing Brussels of over-interpreting the document that serves a blueprint for trade talks rather than a rigid script. 

British officials say the Political Declaration is meant to set the ‘parameters’ for the negotiations. ‘It doesn’t require everything in it to be agreed in treaty form,’ said one.

And last night a source close to the negotiations told The Mail on Sunday: ‘The EU are unfairly characterising the Political Declaration. Establishing a framework is not the same as meaning everything must go in a legally binding treaty.

‘Michel Barnier seems to think he is the referee when actually he is a player on the pitch.’

And they pointed to the text of the Declaration that says it serves as ‘the parameters of an ambitious, broad and deep partnership’. 

The source added: ‘We are fully committed to that vision, but it is clear that while it set out the breadth of our future relationship, it did not envisage that everything in it must be legally enshrined.’

There was also irritation in London that Mr Barnier used his press conference to again urge an extension to the talks, potentially delaying a trade deal by up to two years. 

A source close to the negotiations told The Mail on Sunday: ‘The EU are unfairly characterising the Political Declaration'. Pictured: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson (centre) gestures as he walks with EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier (tight) as they prepare to address a press conference at a European Union Summit at European Union Headquarters in Brussels in October 2019

A senior Government source said: ‘Brexit is about economic independence. An extension to the transition period would simply bind us into future EU legislation, without us having any say in designing it, but still having to foot the bill.’

Next Friday, both sides will meet virtually for the second Withdrawal Agreement Joint Committee meeting. 

London is braced for this meeting to be used to attempt to extend the trade talks, but hopes are fading in Brussels that the British Government will fold on the notion.

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