EU to approve tough negotiating mandate for UK trade talks

EU to approve tough negotiating mandate for UK trade talks
European Commission's Head of Task Force for Relations with the United Kingdom Michel Barnier talks to journalists outside the EU headquarters in Brussels, Monday, Feb. 24, 2020. Barnier meets for talks with EU envoys on the mandate that member states will give him to secure a trade deal with the United Kingdom before the end of the year. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)

BRUSSELS (AP) — European Union ministers are set to approve a tough mandate for its negotiations with the United Kingdom on a free trade deal in the wake of Britain’s departure last month from the bloc.

EU negotiator Michel Barnier has said that the EU is willing to offer the U.K. the best trade relations possible but only if London commits to a level playing field on everything from state aid to environmental standards. Britain has already rejected this, claiming the ability to diverge from EU rules was essential in its Brexit drive.

What’s more, the U.K. wants to get a deal by the end of the year on the kind of trade agreement that usually takes many years to negotiate.

“The time pressure is immense. The interests are huge. It will be very hard work — a tough road ahead,” said Dutch Foreign Minister Stef Blok.

“We are really willing to offer a substantial, ambitious, balanced and wide-ranging partnership,” said Andreja Metelko-Zgombic, Croatia’s European affairs minister who will chair Tuesday’s meeting.

The draft documents seen by The Associated Press show an insistence for the U.K. to align itself with EU rules, even as they evolve, as the most contentious part of the package to be approved by the ministers.

The EU is fearful that if the U.K. is allowed to diverge too much from its rules, it might create a trade giant within miles of the continent, willing to undercut social, industrial and environmental standards it took years to build together.