Battle lines drawn for Brexit trade talks

Negotiations over Britain’s trade terms with the EU are set to his top gear this week Credit: Jonathan Brady/PA

Battle lines have been drawn as ministers on both sides of the Channel prepare to sign-off on their Brexit negotiation red lines.

The EU General Affairs Council assembled on Tuesday morning in Brussels to approve the bloc's mandate for trade talks with the UK - set to start next month.

Representatives arriving at the meeting gave reporters an insight into what might be expected from the discussions.

Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said: "From an Irish perspective the text is strong.

"As you would expect it recognises the importance of protecting the Good Friday Agreement, the peace process."

Croatia's European Affairs minister Andreja Metelko-Zgombic said the EU would be willing to offer a "substantial" and "ambitious" partnership in post-Brexit trade talks with the UK.

While Dutch foreign minister Stef Blok warned that there is a "tough road ahead".

A section of the Elgin marbles which could prove a sticking point in negotiations. Credit: PA

The announcement on Brussels' agreed terms is expected in the afternoon - though one sticking point could be the Elgin Marbles.

A controversial earlier draft of the terms contained what Downing Street read as a veiled reference to the Parthenon marbles - ancient Greek sculptures taken to Britain more than 200 years ago.

The Government previously ruled out any discussion of handing the marbles, which currently sit in the British Museum, back to Greece.

Greece has been vocal about demanding the marble sculptures are returned to Athens.

Boris Johnson at a meeting with Croatian counterpart Andrej Plenkovic. Croatia holds the rotating presidency of the Council of the EU. Credit: PA

While the EU General Affairs Council meets in Brussels, the Brexit inner cabinet will meet in Westminster to discuss the UK’s negotiation stance.

The final agreement is due to be published online and presented in Parliament on Thursday.

Ministers are expected to commit to seeking a Canada-style agreement with zero tariffs - a proposal Boris Johnson and his Europe adviser David Frost have set out in speeches in recent weeks.

The push for a Canada-style deal could set up a clash, however, with the EU after its chief negotiator Michel Barnier ruled out such an agreement.

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

Michel Barnier, the EU’s Brexit negotiator, who opposes a Canada-style trade deal between Europe and the UK. Credit: PA

Asked about the trade talks on Monday, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: "The UK’s primary objective in the negotiations is to ensure that we restore our economic and political independence on January 1 2021."

Europe adviser David Frost and his team will head to Brussels for the first round of negotiations on March 2.

David Frost will head to Brussels for negotiations in early March. Credit: PA

Another flash point expected with the forthcoming publication of the EU's negotiation mandate is on fishing.

Leading member states have spoken regularly about wanting continued access to UK waters.

Mr Johnson used a speech in Greenwich earlier this month to announce, once free of the EU's Common Fisheries Policy, that "British fishing grounds are first and foremost for British boats".

A fishing boat at work in the English Channel. Credit: PA

French Europe minister Amelie de Montchalin signalled fishing would be a hotly contested topic when the two negotiating teams come to spar in London and Brussels over the coming months.

She told TV station France 2: "The fishermen have the right to be protected, they know very well that if we sign a bad deal they will lose enormously".

The PM is expected to meet with Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz in No 10 on Tuesday as part of his diplomatic efforts with EU leaders before talks commence.