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Speaking at an online event, the European Commission President said she would not sanction a future relationship pact without a regulatory level-playing field that could keep Britain tied to the bloc’s standards. But she hinted at a mechanism that would allow the UK to diverge from the EU’s rule book over time. Mrs von der Leyen said: “Normally when you negotiate a free trade agreement two different entities try to join and exploit what they do together. Here, almost half a century, our British friends were completely integrated in the single market. And unfortunately, we have to shape an agreement where we discuss how to disentangle, how to divide, while being close to better together.
“Therefore it is so tricky and so difficult. What is it all about if we talk about the level playing field?
“If the companies that our British friends want access to the single market without quota, and without tariffs. So, total access to the single market, then it must be clear that all in the single market play by the same rules. That’s what we call level playing field.”
The bloc’s most senior official said tariff and quota-free access would depend on Mr Johnson signing up to “non-regression” clauses in areas such a state aid, environmental standards and workers’ rights.
The Prime Minister could one day opt to diverge from the bloc’s rulebook but it would mean the introduction of trade levies if the move is deemed to distort competition between EU and UK firms.
Mrs von der Leyen said: “At the moment being, we’re discussing who we replicate the control of the level playing field. How it started, be it norms, environmental norms or labour norms…
“How we replicate that on both sides so that we can be clear there is no regression on what we have achieved and there is fairness over time so that, indeed, access can be without quota and tariffs and all companies play by the same rules in the single market.
“We want an agreement but not at any price. We are well prepared for both scenarios so we will see in the next days how things turn out.”
The disputes over the so-called level playing field and post-Brexit fishing rights are said to be the two main stumbling blocks in the wrangling.
France is blocking progress by refusing to drop its demands for near-parity access to Britain’s coastal waters after Brexit.
Downing Street insists its negotiating position will not change.
Prime Minister Mr Johnson’s spokesman said: “We want to try and reach a free-trade agreement as soon as possible. But we have been clear we won’t change our negotiating position and we have been clear what that position is.”
However German Chancellor Angela Merkel has warned failure to secure a deal would set a “rather poor example for the rest of the world”.
Insisting the bloc should focus on securing an agreement rather than speeding up plans for a nodeal Brexit, she has urged European capitals to support Mr Barnier to broker an acceptable trade-off for fisheries and state aid rules.
Mrs Merkel said: “Michel Barnier has been negotiating and Ursula von der Leyen has been increasingly involved in the negotiating process so we do hope that we’ll get a positive conclusion to this.
“Some member states are now becoming impatient. There’s not much time left. Governance and level playing field plays a large role.
“Perhaps for some the most tangible are concrete questions, from the British point of view access to energy markets, from our view access to British fishing grounds.”
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