Archive for the ‘fisheries’ Category

France’s EU minister: Quick UK trade deal depends on Brits

A quick trade deal between the EU and the U.K. is possible — but that solely depends on the Brits, according to Amélie de Montchalin, France’s state secretary for EU affairs.

“The more reasonable are the demands of the U.K., the more reasonably we can agree” in the 11-month timeline set out by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, de Montchalin told POLITICO’s Brussels Playbook in an interview. “It will now depend on how the U.K. presents its negotiation strategy and objectives.”

De Montchalin said that “the more divergence” the Brits seek from the EU, the longer talks will take, and “the less frictionless” will be the U.K.’s access to the EU’s market.

And she warned against overly prescriptive deadlines for getting a deal done.

“We are not ready to sacrifice the content, quality and seriousness of an agreement just because we put ourselves in a straight jacket of a too-tight calendar,” she said. “By signing an agreement, we will start a long journey. If we need six more months, it’s worth taking them.”

The U.K. prime minister said earlier this week that it is “epically likely” that Britain will strike a comprehensive trade deal with the EU by his deadline of the end of the year, but admitted: “You always have to budget for complete failure of common sense.”

Quid pro quo will be key to striking a deal, de Montchalin indicated.

“For me, what counts is the capacity to reassure our companies and citizens that there will be reciprocity,” she said, listing the environment as one example. “We just agreed in Europe on carbon neutrality by 2050. We are putting ourselves under constraint, voluntarily,” she said. If the U.K. commits to the same, “that’s a great way to create reciprocity,” she said. Britain last year passed laws that committed it to a binding target of net-zero emissions by 2050.

De Montchalin said that farming rules, the use of pesticides, environmental standards, fisheries, product safety, and fiscal, tax and social issues were on France’s reciprocity wish list.

But if Britain doesn’t play ball? “If they don’t, we have to be very serious. We cannot expose our own people, consumers and farmers to disloyal competition.”

Michel Barnier’s new right hand

Her supporters say she won’t blink first in the Brexit talks, but Michel Barnier’s new deputy will need guile and nerve to hold the EU line against a rejuvenated U.K.

Clara Martínez Alberola takes up the position as the EU Brexit negotiator’s deputy vacated by “Brexit bad cop” Sabine Weyand. She had developed an uncompromising reputation for attention to detail and robust defense against U.K. briefings aimed at destabilizing the EU negotiating position.

But gone are the days of Theresa May’s ministers negotiating while looking over their shoulder at a U.K. parliament (and government) divided over the central questions posed by Brexit — as well as doubts over whether the U.K. departure would actually happen.

Boris Johnson’s thumping 80-seat majority in the House of Commons has brought an end to strategic uncertainty in London and makes his government, potentially, a more formidable negotiating partner. That may test EU unity in new ways, putting more pressure on Barnier’s team.

Just like Weyand, the 56-year-old Martínez Alberola has spent her entire career in the EU institutions and is known for combining cross-sector knowledge and management skills with political smarts — qualities that will be crucial as the two sides begin talks on this most political of trade deals.

Former President of the European Union Commission Jean-Claude Juncker (L) with EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier (R) and Clara Martinez Alberola at the opening of a College of Commissioners at the EU headquarters in Brussels on January 30, 2019. | John Thys/AFP via Getty Images

“She is very clinical and methodological in her work. She actually seems more German than Spanish,” said Esteban González Pons, an MEP from the center-right European People’s Party who, like Martínez Alberola, is from Valencia.

A long-time friend, who was “born the same day [August 21], in the same hospital,” González Pons said Barnier’s new deputy would be able to juggle the different interests like trade, fisheries, banking or transport.

One fear in Brussels is that under the extreme time pressure to secure a deal in 11 months, the interests of EU countries in different sectors can be prized apart.

“We need somebody like her in Barnier’s cabinet who won’t allow that the Brits divide us,” González Pons said, adding: “In the negotiation game with the British, she will never be the one who blinks first.”

David McAllister, the chair of the European Parliament’s foreign affairs committee and a member of its Brexit steering group, lauded her as “a highly qualified woman” whose expertise was going to be needed in “very complex” negotiations.

Martínez Alberola — who also speaks English, French, Italian and some Portuguese — studied law in Valencia before enrolling at the College of Europe, the training school for Eurocrats. She was one of the first Spaniards to join the EU’s civil service in 1991, only a few years after Madrid’s accession to the bloc.

González Pons says she enjoys gardening, reading, watching the French Open tennis tournament at Roland-Garros and supporting her local Valencia CF football team on TV.

She rose through the ranks as an expert in internal market affairs, enlargement and pharmaceutical issues, before becoming an adviser to former Commission President José Manuel Barroso. In 2014, she was promoted to deputy cabinet chief under Jean-Claude Juncker, Barroso’s successor.

According to Commission insiders, that move was in part thanks to her close ties with Martin Selmayr, Juncker’s then powerful chief of staff.

About four years later, the Spanish Eurocrat was at the center of the highly controversial promotion of the German to the role of Commission secretary-general in February 2018.

In what many regarded as a highly irregular procedure, Selmayr had applied for the job of the deputy secretary-general with just one rival candidate, Martínez Alberola, and who then — it was widely reported — conveniently withdrew her candidature. Minutes after Selmayr had secured the deputy position, it was announced that secretary-general Alexander Italianer was retiring, making Selmayr his successor.

MartínezAlberola, meanwhile, benefitted from the musical chairs by taking over Selmayr’s old job as cabinet chief for Juncker, who told reporters at the time: “Over the two-and-half years that I have been in this job, I have seen that she has knowledge which really exceeds the ordinary.” She has always neither confirmed nor denied that she applied for the deputy secretary-general position.

While Selmayr left his position in July and is now the EU’s representative in Austria, Martínez Alberola will almost inevitably be confronted with suspicions that she is part of the so-called “Selmayr deep state” that outlasts his departure — and may prepare his return to Brussels.

González Pons rejected that idea. “Clara has a long-time career,” he said. “When Selmayr arrived to the Commission, she was already there. She coincided with him, they get along very well I suppose, but she doesn’t owe him her career.”

Clara Martinez Alberola, then Belgium Prime Minister Charles Michel and former European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker at the European Council headquarters in Brussels, on March 23, 2018 | Pool photo by Geert Vanden Wijngaert/AFP via Getty Images

Martínez Alberola declined to comment when approached by POLITICO.

As Spain’s most senior official in Brussels, Martínez Alberola has a good connection to the government in Madrid, said one EU diplomat. This is unlikely to make things easier for London in the upcoming negotiations since Spain has particular demands in the talks, including access to British fishing waters, citizens’ rights and the status of Gibraltar.

Another EU diplomat said that Martínez Alberola was already very familiar with Brexit since she had been closely involved in her role as the Commission president’s chief of staff.

The diplomat remarked that the Commission now had “a whole club of senior officials with a lot of experience” on Brexit. They include Stéphanie Riso, a former director in Barnier’s team who is now deputy chief of staff to new Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, and Weyand, who is head of the Commission’s trade department.

“We as member states really have a lot of trust in the Commission [on Brexit],” the diplomat said.

Martínez Alberola is married to an Italian lawyer who lives with her in Brussels, but works outside the EU institutions. And in the coming 11 monhts of high-speed, intense negotiations, Martínez Alberola may need grounding from someone outside the EU bubble.

González Pons, though, says she knows how to relax amid the pressure. “Even though she works like a German, she’s that Valencian that every time the sun comes out a bit in Brussels, she leaves her office and can be found on a bench next to the Commission, soaking up the sun,” he said.

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Salami tactics loom for Brexit trade talks

Facing a brutal timetable to negotiate a comprehensive deal on their future relations by the end of the year, Brussels and London are weighing up a more slice-by-slice approach to talks.

While both sides insist a traditional, all-inclusive trade pact is still possible, they are now also considering more piecemeal tactics to avoid a catastrophic cliff-edge of tariffs and trade barriers from January 2021.

To the EU side, that means a potential Plan B of more sector-by-sector agreements, while the British are mapping out the attractions of negotiations that move forward by incrementally locking in wins, rather than waiting for one last-minute finale.

“We are very clear we want to get on in terms of negotiating a deal and so maybe the approach of nothing is agreed until everything is agreed which characterized previous negotiations is not an approach that we are interested in taking,” a British government spokesperson said during a briefing in London while U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson was meeting European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

“Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed” is a long-standing mantra for EU trade negotiators, who have never faced such a tight political deadline on a major pact as December 31, when the transition period runs out — and which Johnson says he won’t extend.

“We might want to take a reconsideration of the time frame before July 1.” — Ursula von der Leyen

The logic of keeping all the elements on the table in talks is that both parties will be able to play to to their strengths — one side could be strong in farming, the other in chemicals, for example — and the endgame will provide an opportunity for the final big cross-sectoral trade offs.

EU officials have always insisted that this kind of wide-reaching, ambitious agreement is their goal. One of their chief fears is that Britain could emerge as a light-regulation competitor to the EU after Brexit, so they have traditionally not wanted Britain locking down small sector-by-sector zero-tariff trade deals before it commits not to deviate from EU rules and regulations.

However, given the intense pressure of Johnson’s deadline, EU officials and diplomats say the European Commission is now considering a safety net option of negotiating separate, limited deals in four to five sectors, covering trade, fisheries, security and foreign policy as well as transport and aviation.

Race against the clock

Speaking at the London School of Economics on Wednesday, von der Leyen hinted at such a change of negotiating tactics when she pointed out that the clock was ticking.

“The transition time is very, very tight,” she said. “So it is basically impossible to negotiate all … so we will have to prioritize.”

She added that negotiators should primarily focus on areas where there are no international trade treaties to fall back on. “It is not an all or nothing thing, but it is a question of priorities,” she said.

One EU diplomat cautioned, however, that “of course, these potential sectorial agreements would not be completely independent from each other.”

“There are areas where the EU has more leverage, like market access, and others like fisheries where the U.K. has more leverage, so that wouldn’t mean that they pull us over the barrel on fish and we do the same with them on trade.”

One EU official said that EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier had first brought up the idea of sectorial deals in December after technical experts made clear that it was completely unrealistic to negotiate and ratify a comprehensive future relations deal before the end of the year. The salami tactics were described as an emergency measure.

Von der Leyen, in her speech on Wednesday, made another attempt to urge Johnson to rethink his position. “We might want to take a reconsideration of the time frame before July 1,” she said.

July is the deadline by which the EU and U.K. will have to agree whether they extend the transition period beyond the end of the year.

Mixing it up

The question of the timetable and scope of the U.K.-EU trade deal is squarely in focus in Brussels, where a decision must be taken on whether the deal is legally considered a “mixed” agreement.

That is highly significant for the timetable. If it is a “mixed” agreement it will need ratification by some 40 national and regional parliaments across the EU. That makes an 11-month timetable practically impossible, and greatly increases the prospect of opposition. The EU’s trade deal with Canada, for example, was almost torpedoed in 2016 by resistance from the parliament of the Belgian region of Wallonia.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson meets EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen at 10 Downing Street on January 8, 2020 in London, England | Peter Summers/Getty Images

During an initial preparatory meeting on future relations, attended by attachés from the EU27 countries on Wednesday, the Commission said that it would offer more clarity on the structure of the future agreement during a special briefing session, which will likely take place on January 21.

These preparatory briefings are meant to inform the countries about the Commission’s plans for the negotiations on the future relations and facilitate talks on an EU negotiating mandate, which will have to be adopted by EU countries in February, once the U.K. has officially left the bloc.

One diplomat predicted that these legal questions on the architecture of the deal will develop into a bigger discussion that would have to be held among EU ambassadors, “as it is such a big political issue.”

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