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Brexit and setting the agenda for the trade negotiations

On 25 February 2020 the  Council of the EU adopted a decision authorising the commencement of  trade negotiations with the UK  and setting out in written form the negotiating directives to be followed by EU negotiating team led by Michael Barnier.

On 27 February 2020 the UK Government issued its policy paper, entitled "The Future Relationship with the EU - The UK's Approach to Negotiations", which  sets out the objectives to be followed the UK team, led by David Frost, in the forthcoming trade negotiations with the EU.

The negotiations are expected to begin in the week commencing 2 March 2020.

The two sets of documents are predictably different in both look and feel. The  main EU document , running to some 46 pages, is prescriptive and emphasises the importance of the " level playing field", particularly in such matters as state aid, which must apply if the negotiations are to succeed. The main UK document, which only runs to some 30 pages, has been styled a "policy paper" by the UK Government and perhaps to that extent has the inherent lack of precision , which that phrase implies.

The UK Government has indicated that it may be prepared to walk away from the trade negotiations if substantial progress has not been made by the end of June 2020. The EU  clearly feels that it is unrealistic to believe that final agreement on all relevant issues is  achievable before the end of the transition period on 31 December 2020.

The  EU Internal Market Sub-Committee  of the House of Lords, seeing the direction of travel of the parties, had announced on 13 February 2020 that it would be conducting a short enquiry into the role of the " level playing field", including state aid, in EU free trade agreements with third countries. It will be interesting to see what conclusions  the Sub-Committee will reach and whether its report will influence the outcome of the trade negotiations between the EU and the UK in the present case.

There is a concern on both sides that negotiations will drag on indefinitely  and, therefore, the UK's expressed insistence on setting short time limits for discussions may not be as unwelcome to the EU side as one might think.

The importance of communicating to the public  (both in the UK and the EU)  what is happening  in the forthcoming negotiations in an effective and hopefully positive manner cannot be overstated, given the public weariness that the "Withdrawal Agreement" phase of the Brexit discussions generated .

Both sides have a lot to gain by a successful outcome to the trade negotiations. Hopefully, that prospect will guide the negotiators in the months ahead.