Prime Minister Boris Johnson has mocked the European Union for its bizarre behaviour in the run-up to Brexit trade talks.
Sources close to Prime Minister Boris Johnson point to the EU’s delay in publishing its negotiation mandate and last week’s chaos over its budget. The recent suggestion by the EU that the Elgin Marbles could be part of a price of a trade deal has been dismissed out of hand. And last night a source close to the British negotiations said: “On the UK side, progress has been remarkably smooth, with a clear decision-making framework in place and a sense of unity among ministers.
“By contrast, the EU seems divided, distracted by other issues like marbles, instead of the important decisions on what our trading relationship will actually look like. The new plan is for them to approve their mandate on February 25 but it is anyone’s guess whether they will.”
The Prime Minister is set to sign off the British negotiating mandate on Tuesday and unveil it on Thursday after MPs have returned from their short recess.
This will be followed by another negotiation mandate for talks with the US, to be published in the first week of March.
The move will heap pressure on Brussels to compromise with Britain, as heading for a rival deal with the US and other countries would potentially make access to the UK market more difficult for the EU.
Currently, the EU has a £100billion trade surplus with Britain, meaning the bloc could potentially be the big loser if tariffs are imposed.
There are already splits within Europe over how to handle the UK talks, with Hungary leading a push for the Brussels team led by Michel Barnier to take a more constructive approach than it did with the withdrawal agreement.
But Mr Barnier and commission president Ursula von der Leyen have insisted that Britain must be subject to EU rules and regulations.
However, the bloc is on the point of a diplomatic civil war as it struggles to set its new, post-Brexit budget.
With Britain finally gone, countries will have to put in more money to pay for the huge spending programme being called for by Brussels bureaucrats.
Brexit has left a mammoth £63billion gap in the seven-year budget.
And the so-called “frugal four” of Denmark, Austria, Sweden and the Netherlands have said they would not accept a budget of more than one per cent of the bloc’s GDP.
It is the first major rift within the bloc since the UK left on January 31.
Under the current plans Germany will have to pay an extra £8.3billion while the Netherlands’ bill will go up by £2.9billion. France will pay just £1.2billion more.
Disagreement over the commission’s plans and the extra costs have meant that agreement has proven impossible to reach at this stage.
Meanwhile, the EU had planned to have its mandate for negotiations with Britain pinned down by February 11, ready to submit to ministers. Instead there has been a series of top-level meetings from which drafts have leaked. It has still not agreed to a mandate and is juggling that along with agreeing its budget for the next seven years.
In his own EU negotiation mandate, Mr Johnson will make it clear that Britain will not accept a worse deal than the ones offered to other third-party countries including Canada, South Korea and Japan.
The stance represents a new confidence in the British position since his historic election victory in December which removed the Remainer parliament veto to Brexit and allowed Britain to leave on January 31.
The Prime Minister has vowed to have a trade and security deal in place by the end of this year when the transition period ends or else leave on the current terms of the deal, which are similar to the EU’s relationship with Australia. Last week, government sources described EU demands for Britain to follow its rules and be adjudicated over by the European Court of Justice as “ridiculous and unreasonable”.
Yet in the past few days the EU has upped its demands, including an apparent call for the return of the Elgin marbles – taken from Greece in the 19th century – as well as a push for control over the British Overseas Territory of Gibraltar.
Government sources confirmed that this would make the prospect of Britain walking out of the talks more likely.
The UK negotiation mandate document will major on the precedent set by the EU in negotiations with other third countries and re-emphasise Britain’s desire for a Canada-style deal. There are not expected to be any surprises in the mandate – which is consistent in its ambition for a future relationship based on friendly co-operation between sovereign equals.
According to Downing Street sources, the process is running smoothly on the UK side.
Taskforce Europe – the unit charged with negotiating with the EU in the coming months – has hit the ground running with more than 40 dedicated officials including the best and brightest in their fields from across Whitehall.
The head of the negotiating team, David Frost, gave a lecture in Brussels last week which is understood to have calmed nerves and, in stark contrast to Theresa May’s government, ministers are united in their approach to the talks.
Sources close to the PM have insisted that the UK is ambitious in how often it wishes to meet the EU to negotiate, with summits split between Brussels and London and beginning in Belgium on March 2. The team will include negotiators from Taskforce Europe and policy experts from across government, led by Mr Frost.
A Downing Street source said: “We regain full independence for the people of the UK at the end of this year – the negotiation is about defining the terms on which we do that.”