Michel Barnier has criticised the UK for trying to reopen an agreement to protect EU regional food specialities such as champagne and feta, saying the move is “not compatible” with a sustainable future relationship.
Britain and the EU agreed last year as part of their Brexit deal to protect more than 3,000 registered European food names from imitation, including many well known specialities.
The issue is acutely sensitive for many EU countries, and the bloc has invested diplomatic energy down the years to ensure that partner countries keep copycat products off their shop shelves.
Last year’s EU-UK agreement also protected over 80 British food and drink products registered during the country’s decades an EU member state, including Stilton blue cheese and Scotch whisky.
But EU diplomats said that Britain was keen to revisit the issue and transfer the protections, known as “geographical indications” to the two sides’ planned trade deal.
Under the terms of Britain’s Brexit treaty, the protections for food specialities will apply unless and until they are superseded by a new agreement. Britain argues that addressing the issue in the future-relationship talks would provide clarity, not least because last year’s deal did not set out what should happen with new protected foods designated by Britain or the UK.
Another major motivation for Britain is that the Brexit treaty foresees a role for the European Court of Justice in upholding the rules, with Boris Johnson determined to fully remove the UK from the ECJ’s jurisdiction.
“The UK has even wanted to reopen the whole question of GIs which are clearly protected in the withdrawal agreement,” Mr Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, told the European Parliament on Wednesday.
He criticised the move, alongside Britain’s refusal to provide more details about its post-Brexit state-aid regime and food safety standards, saying “none of that is compatible with the basis of a sustainable, ambitious, agreement with a major country which is likely to remain our friend, ally and partner”.
Mr Barnier’s comments underlined the difficulties that remain in the future-relationship talks despite Boris Johnson agreeing with EU chiefs this week that the two sides would redouble their efforts to broker an agreement before the end of Britain’s post-Brexit transition period on December 31.
The Frenchman and his British counterpart David Frost will hold intensive negotiations throughout July with the aim of identifying potential landing zones on the most contentious issues in the talks, including fishing rights in UK waters and EU demands that Britain follow the bloc’s state-aid rules as part of a regulatory “level playing field”.
While Mr Johnson has called for decisive progress by the end of next month, further rounds of negotiations are planned for August and September.
Mr Barnier said nonetheless that he believed a deal was possible. “It’s going to be difficult,” he said. “I share the feeling of urgency expressed by Boris Johnson.”
Speaking earlier in the same session of the EU parliament, Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, said that Brussels was ready to find compromises but that it would not sacrifice the EU’s principles nor “the integrity of our union”.
“It is very clear that there cannot be a comprehensive trade agreement without fisheries, without a level playing field or without strong governance mechanisms,” she added.