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European ministers sign off on Brussels' red lines for forthcoming post-Brexit trade talks with UK

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Picture by Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

EUROPEAN ministers have signed off on Brussels' red lines for the forthcoming post-Brexit trade talks with the UK.

The proposals put into writing warnings by Michel Barnier, the European Union's chief negotiator, that Britain must sign up to a "level playing field" in any free trade agreement.

The level playing field stipulation could see Brussels attempt to bounce the UK into following some EU rules and standards after the Brexit transition period ends in 2021, a concession the Prime Minister has already ruled out.

In its negotiation mandate, the EU stated that any future relationship with the UK should be "underpinned by robust commitments to ensure a level playing field for open and fair competition, given the EU and the UK's geographic proximity and economic interdependence".

On fisheries, the EU General Affairs Council, at its meeting yesterday, also agreed to negotiate to "uphold the existing reciprocal access to waters" - a move that is set to flare tensions between the UK and EU.

Setting out the EU's position on linking fish, trade and the UK respecting Brussels' rules, Mr Barnier said: "The trade agreement will be associated with a fisheries agreement and an agreement about a level playing field or there won't be any agreement at all."

But the Prime Minister's official spokesman said: "The UK did not vote twice to take back control of its fishing waters only to give that control up again.

"As a matter of fact, it doesn't matter what the EU puts in its mandate as we become an independent coastal state on December 31 2020."

The spokesman added: "This does not have to be negotiated, nor will it be.

"Any access by non-UK vessels to fish in UK waters will be for us to determine."

Croatian Europe minister Andreja Metelko-Zgombic said the EU is "ready" to commence trade talks now its mandate had been ratified.

He said: "The council has adopted a clear and strong mandate for our negotiator, Michel Barnier.

"This confirms our readiness to offer an ambitious, wide-ranging and balanced partnership to the UK for the benefit of both sides.

"The EU is now ready to start negotiations."

In Westminster, Mr Johnson is chairing a meeting of senior ministers on his Brexit committee ahead of the publication of the UK's negotiating position tomorrow.

British ministers are expected to seek a Canada-style agreement with zero tariffs, a proposal Mr Johnson and his Europe adviser, David Frost, have set out in speeches in recent weeks.

But the push for a Canada-style deal could set up a clash with the EU after Mr Barnier ruled out such an agreement.

He has previously said the UK is too close in proximity to be permitted to compete with the other 27 member states on such terms.

Mr Frost and his team will head to Brussels for the first round of negotiations on March 2, after being armed with the UK's own mandate.

The tight time schedule for the talks remains an issue, with European ministers voicing concerns over the Prime Minister's unwillingness to extend the deadline beyond December.

Dutch foreign minister Stef Blok, arriving at the council meeting in Brussels, warned of the "immense" time pressure facing both sides as they attempt to agree a future trading relationship.

"The time pressure is immense, the interests are huge - it's a very complicated treaty - so it will be very hard work. A tough road ahead," he told reporters.

Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney said the EU was making a "generous and fair" offer to the UK, but warned Mr Johnson not to renege on the commitments made in the Withdrawal Agreement.

His comments follow reports that Mr Johnson has ordered his Brexit team to find ways to "get around" the Northern Ireland protocol which aims to avoid the introduction of a hard border on the island of Ireland.

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