View from Brussels: Where the EU is going with this…

EU ministers agreed on negotiating guidelines for upcoming trade talks with the United Kingdom on Tuesday (25 February), drawing a number of lines in the sand as the clock starts ticking down to an end-of-year deadline for a deal.

The UK's membership card may have expired on 31 January but there is plenty of work left to do on defining ties between London and Brussels. The 'political Brexit' is over but the 'economic Brexit' is incomplete.

Ministers from the bloc's 27 remaining countries took just one minute to agree yesterday on a negotiating mandate for their chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, who will roll up his sleeves and meet his UK counterparts next week.

But the text took a lot of effort by diplomats to put together, as it encompasses numerous technical aspects and areas of interest where the EU does not want the UK to undermine its business and standards. Here are some of the less headline-grabbing issues to watch.

Transport links

Every aspect of how the UK is connected to mainland Europe and Ireland will need attention in the upcoming talks, although many of the issues could take longer than the 31 December deadline might allow.

Once the transition period is over, UK and EU road hauliers will have to rely on new arrangements when plying their trade in each other's territories.

To that end, Barnier's guidelines include allotted time for cabotage negotiations.

"UK road haulage operators should not be granted the same level of rights and benefits as those enjoyed by Union road haulage operators," the text reads, emphasising how the EU wants to preserve the benefits of bloc membership.

The International Road Transport Union (IRU) welcomed the agreed mandate, though, and wished the EU and UK "every success in concluding an agreement before the end of 2020".

Rail also gets a look-in, as "the specific situation" of the Channel Tunnel and the Belfast-Dublin Enterprise Line are included in the list of issues. Maritime transport will also feature in the talks.

In the skies

Air travel will also need a new pact and Brussels will look to replicate the bilateral agreements it already has in place with other countries like Qatar and Japan, so that "all Union air carriers are treated equally and in a non-discriminatory manner".

But the idea of making the UK feel the pinch of being a third-party country is on less solid ground when it comes to aviation as the mandate acknowledges that the "geographical proximity" of the two parties will make things more complex.

In a nod to a rumoured EU plan to remove jet fuel's plum tax-free status, the guidelines insist that any aviation deal should not prohibit levies on kerosene supplies. That is designed to prevent the UK becoming a 'fuel haven' of sorts if Brussels pushes ahead with its tax initiative.

Aircraft safety will also be on the agenda but is envisaged as a trust exercise of sorts between the UK's regulator and Europe's, the EASA agency.

Essentially, EASA would only accept plane certification if it has enough confidence in its British counterpart's capabilities.

It is a situation Europe's regulator finds itself in with its US equivalent, the FAA, over the grounded Boeing 737 MAX planes. EASA intends to carry out its own test flights before the aircraft can return to service in Europe's skies, even if the FAA gives the green light.

The UK will not be given tailor-made access to the bloc's global positioning satellite system, Galileo, though. A previous draft of the guidelines suggested that a bespoke deal could be put together but that language has been toned down.

It may push Westminster to double down on the idea of launching its own Galileo-esque system.

Energy and climate

Energy maintains its long-held status as being largely 'Brexit-proof', although the Barnier mandate does go into setting up a framework for gas and electricity operators to cooperate better, as well as ensuring the smooth functioning of cross-Channel energy links.

But on climate policy there may be trouble brewing, as the EU side is set to demand a level playing field on carbon pricing, so that its emissions trading system is not undercut by a UK equivalent.

A new set of environmental measures, grouped under the bloc's flagship Green Deal initiative, aim to curb the EU's emissions almost completely by 2050 but also maintain Europe's competitive edge in global trade.

One of the biggest concerns is 'carbon leakage', where industries relocate to an area outside of strict regulatory oversight in order to avoid green levies.

EU officials are worried that the UK could undermine their efforts if the carbon price is not at least comparable.

Negotiators have until the end of the year to lay the foundations for all these areas of cooperation and even less time for issues like fisheries, if the UK government stays the course and refuses to ask for a two-year-long extension by July.

Given the divisiveness of several of the items on the docket, expect to hear warnings of 'no-deal' resurface before too long.

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