Ireland’s EU commissioner Phil Hogan has said British consumers will expect the UK to sign up to the EU’s labour, environmental and food standards as part of a free trade agreement for which he will be chief negotiator next year.
Giving an upbeat prediction of how quickly the trade negotiations could be concluded, Mr Hogan, the EU Trade Commmissioner-designate, said the EU would be ready to go “before St Patrick’s Day” next year,.
However he said the UK would have to decide early on in the negotiations which EU rules they were prepared to sign up to.
Speaking to RTÉ News, Mr Hogan said: “The British public will demand and expect that their government will sign on to EU standards because we have the highest standards in the world.”
In remarks which will be seen as an encouragement for British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who has said a free trade agreement could be negotiated before the end of next year, Mr Hogan said that because the UK had been part of the EU’s trading regime for 45 years then neither side was starting from scratch in the negotiations.
“We’re not starting from zero so therefore I believe we can do – with a bit of good will on both sides – we can do an agreement more quickly than we would do with any other negotiations around the world which would take three or four years.
“The United Kingdom has been part of the European Union. They’ve been part of the trade framework for the past 45 years, so we’re not starting from scratch.”
Speaking at an event held by the European Movement Ireland in Brussels, Mr Hogan told RTÉ News that the UK would have to decide which EU regulations the UK wanted to be part of, and which they would diverge from.
He said a key issue would be the kinds of standards that British consumers wanted to adhere to.
“I would say a majority of the [EU] regulations that are there won’t be a problem for the consumers or workers or people who are working in the environmental or agricultural [sphere] if they want to have the highest possible standards.
“I think that’s the key issue: standards.”
Mr Hogan would not be drawn on whether or not adherence to EU standards would require the UK to abide by the oversight of the European Commission and the enforcement mechanisms of the European Court of Justice, to which eurosceptics like Mr Johnson have long been hostile.
He said that because both sides had signed up to shared principles on the future relationship through the Political Declaration, which accompanies the Withdrawal Agreement, then the issues would not be as difficult as might be expected.
Mr Hogan said the European Commission had already done a substantial amount of preparation for the EU-UK future relationship negotiations. For this reason he believed the talks could be done quickly.
“I do feel there is political good will on both sides, having got this far in the Phase I negotiations [the Withdrawal Agreement] eventually they will not want – either side – to upset each other in having a frictionless tariff-free, quota-free agreement,” he said.
He added that the UK would have to sign up to so-called level playing field provisions, which the EU see as preventing a potentially low-regulation UK from undercutting the European economy.
But he believed things could move quickly.
“I would think there will be a significant amount of progress made because we will be ready to go in the springtime, the Council will have to give us a mandate.
“All the details around that can be achieved very quickly. We can get into the negotiations before Patrick’s if there is political good will on the part of the United Kingdom and we’re ready to go.”
Mr Hogan qualified his remarks saying everything depended on the outcome of the British election next month.
“If there’s a majority government of course it makes a big difference,” he said.
“If Mr Johnson is going to have a majority we’ll have a Withdrawal Agreement approved by mid-January and if there’s an alternative to Mr Johnson elected, led by Labour and the Lib Dems, we’ll probably have another referendum, so we wait with baited breath for the 12th of December.
“It’s a very big decision for the United Kingdom. There’s a lot of engagement in it and Brexit is the biggest issue in the campaign.”
Mr Hogan said that while Michel Barnier would be responsible for overseeing the overall future relationship negotiations, he would be in charge of the trade talks.
“Mr Barnier will monitor all the future relationship and I will be the chief negotiator for the free trade agreement.
“He’ll have to make sure there is a comprehensive picture emerging from seven or eight different commissioners that will be involved in various different ways in these negotiations with the United Kingdom.
“From the point of view of the trade element, I will be negotiating directly with the United Kingdom with the assistance and support of Mr Barnier.”