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Brexit, a never-ending story with always uncertain consequences

Portrait Vedrenne

Now that the end of the the end of the transition period and the sources of tension are becoming increasingly visible, Marie-Pierre Vedrenne, MoDem MEP and Vice-Chairwoman of the International Trade Committee, looks back at European action to defend our interests in negotiations that are never-ending and decrypts the obstacles between Europeans and the British.

How is the issue of trade at the heart of the latest Brexit negotiations?

First of all, let us remember that this negotiation does not only concern trade issues and that the definition of this relationship is quite singular. Indeed, the European Union usually negotiates free trade agreements with the aim of bringing standards closer together, convergence...

In this case, we have to map out the future with a country that was part of our internal market and is now leaving it - even though the British have always had one foot in, one foot out since they joined the European Economic Community.

Trade is extremely important and at the heart of the negotiations with access to our market. The UK does 52% of its total trade in goods with the EU, 54% of its imports of goods with the EU, and 49% of its exports of goods go to the EU . The numbers speak for themselves, so we see a strong British dependence on trade, especially as the UK accounts for only 5% of the EU's total merchandise trade. A revealing example: in the agri-food sector, these trade links are very close, particularly in fresh and processed fruit and vegetables, meat products and food preparations. In 2017, the value of these exports amounted to 40 billion euros. The close relations and interconnection between our markets is even greater with France.

Without a trade agreement, only the World Trade Organisation rules apply and this will have negative consequences for all economic actors. Finding a good agreement to ensure a balanced relationship, trade that is not based on unfair competition is crucial, but as a new round of negotiations is taking place, the horizon is getting darker.

What are the areas of tension in the negotiations between the UK and the EU?

As we approach the end of the transition period, negotiations are becoming difficult and I deeply regret the positions and stance taken by the British Government.

The UK is preparing to break the terms of its withdrawal agreement, we are told, if no trade agreement is reached with the European Union before the end of the year. This withdrawal agreement has been signed and ratified by both parties: to contravene this commitment is simply contrary to international law and to keeping one's word. And this is unacceptable!

The fisheries agreement is, as we all know, a sticking point in the discussions. According to a report by the French National Assembly: over the period 2012-2016, European fishing in British waters is 8.4 times greater in terms of volume of landings than British fishing in the waters of other Member States. At the same time, Europeans earn 4.9 times more in British waters than British fishermen in the waters of other Member States. In my region of Brittany, the stakes are high and I welcome the commitment of the negotiators to defend our interests and not give in to British demagoguery.

What guarantees are there that free competition will be respected?

Ensuring fair and equitable competition must be the foundation of our future relationship, especially given the importance and proximity of the UK economy. The UK must understand that access to the European internal market has a cost and a price to pay!

Compliance with equal social, environmental, fiscal, public aid or consumer protection rules is non-negotiable.

Our demands and requests are clear and the chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, continues to defend them vigorously according to the mandate we have given him. Yes, Boris Johnson, a trade relationship without quotas and customs duties, it is therefore a relationship without distortion of competition!

The Dispute Settlement Body seems to be a problem in the UK, why?

On 9 January, Boris Johnson stipulated that "any future agreement" should not include any alignment with European rules or recourse to the Court of Justice of the European Union. He pleaded for a relationship based on friendly cooperation, but in fact he is promoting a relationship that he feels is only favourable. He called for a broad free trade agreement along the lines of the Canadian CETA, covering goods and services and other areas of cooperation.

The European Parliament also wants a dispute settlement system in the agreement, we want to "ensure a coherent governance framework, which must include a strong dispute settlement mechanism and governance structures; stresses, in this regard, the competence of the European Court of Justice in the interpretation of questions relating to European law in order to ensure consistency of interpretation".

As in any trade relationship, Europe will have to ensure that the provisions of the agreement are respected and implemented by both partners, and the Chief Trade Enforcement Officer will also have an important role to play in this respect. Gone are the days of naivety! And I will watch out for it!