Britain and the E.U. Enter Trade Talks, Acrimoniously 1

LONDON — When the European Parliament bade farewell to Britain last month, its members broke out into a wistful chorus of “Auld Lang Syne.” But when British negotiators travel to Brussels on Monday to kick off the next phase of Brexit, these old acquaintances are likely to give them the cold shoulder.

Negotiations for a sweeping new trade agreement between Britain and the European Union are beginning in an atmosphere of deepening acrimony, with each side accusing the other of bad faith, posturing and moving the goal posts.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government released its objectives for the trade agreement on Thursday — a 30-page document that served mainly to underscore how far apart the two sides are, as they begin a fiendishly complicated negotiation that must produce a deal by the end of the year.

“The whole objective of doing what we’re doing is so the U.K. can do things differently and better,” Mr. Johnson told the BBC, explaining why Britain has rejected a European Union demand that it adhere to European standards on labor, environmental protection and state aid.

The prime minister’s top advisers added to the pressure by warning that if they did not have the outlines of a deal by June, they would walk away from the talks and pivot to preparing for a no-deal Brexit. Such a scenario, economists warn, would be hugely disruptive and damaging.

With the government having threatened a no-deal exit for months before signing a withdrawal agreement with Brussels, few people take this latest threat seriously. But it captures the combative tone that Mr. Johnson’s government is taking as it embarks on one of the most unusual exercises in the annals of trade negotiations.

Unlike in a typical trade negotiation, Brussels and London are not trying to pull down tariffs, eliminate quotas or remove other barriers. They are instead working out which barriers will need to be reinstated between two partners that once enjoyed open markets and friction-free trade.

The British negotiating blueprint calls for talks “based on friendly cooperation between sovereign equals, with both parties respecting one another’s legal autonomy and right to manage their own resources as they see fit.”

It says nothing about cooperating on security or defense — areas where Britain feels it can rely on existing arrangements, which should not be put under the umbrella of a future relationship with the European Union.

The document rejects a key element of the European Union’s position: that Britain must align itself with European standards on an array of issues, and that the European Court of Justice will decide whether it has done so.

Mr. Johnson has insisted that Britain will diverge from the European Union wherever it wants to, and that European courts should have nothing to say about it. At every turn, British officials talk about Brexit as a way for the country to reclaim its sovereignty from the bureaucrats in Brussels.

“This government has been adamant that it wants to do things differently,” said Mujtaba Rahman, a managing director at the political risk consultancy, Eurasia Group. “The two sides are so far apart, and there is so little time to make a deal that the odds of a bad outcome are rising.”

Britain is seeking a trade agreement modeled on that of Canada — one that grants favorable market access but demands less regulatory alignment with the European Union. European officials argue that Britain’s proximity to the Continent makes such an arrangement untenable, since its regulations could disadvantage European firms far more than Canadian rules do.

“The U.K. says that it wants Canada,” the European Union’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, said this week. “But the problem with that is that the U.K. is not Canada.”

There could be a rancorous breakdown over all this in June, Mr. Rahman said, since it was unlikely that they will have accomplished much by then. He still believes the two sides will hammer out some kind of deal by the end of year, but he puts the odds of success at only a little over 50 percent.

Part of the problem is sheer complexity. There will be 10 parallel tracks of negotiations involving a team of 100 on the British side alone. The first round will run from Monday to Thursday of next week in Brussels, with the teams reconvening in London on March 18. At that rate, there will be time for only half a dozen rounds before Britain takes stock of the progress.

Moreover, some of the early sticking points — like the European Union’s access to British fishing grounds — are going to be the most contentious. There is also growing tension over whether Mr. Johnson is quietly reneging on the status of Northern Ireland in the withdrawal agreement.

British officials say there will be no need for checks of goods flowing from Britain to Northern Ireland since Northern Ireland remains part of the British customs territory. But under the terms of the agreement with Brussels, the North will also adhere to European Union regulations. This hybrid status, experts say, makes it impossible for there to be no border checks.

Adding to the fears of a bitter negotiation, Mr. Johnson reshuffled his cabinet to stack it with hard-line Brexiteers. He replaced the Northern Ireland secretary, Julian Smith, who almost quit last year when Mr. Johnson threatened a no-deal Brexit, with Brandon Lewis, who is viewed as more compliant.

Sajid Javid, the chancellor of the Exchequer who voted to stay in the European Union in 2016, was forced out in a power struggle with 10 Downing Street. Analysts say that his successor, Rishi Sunak, is likely to put up less resistance to a confrontation with Brussels.

Some analysts chalk up the fighting words to an opening gambit. Britain and the European Union, they say, both have a strong incentive to come to terms. During the withdrawal talks with Brussels, Mr. Johnson showed an ability to pivot seamlessly from confrontation to compromise.

Yet other experts note that Mr. Johnson’s ultimate motives remain something of a mystery. He has yet to speak in detail about what kind of Brexit he wants. Some note that the disruption of failing to make a deal, while indisputably bad, would not be magnitudes worse than the bare-bones deal that Mr. Johnson says, for now, that he is seeking.

“I’m not certain whether, if you ranked the preferences in No. 10,” said Anand Menon, a professor of European Studies at Kings College London, referring to the prime minister’s offices at 10 Downing Street, “that getting a deal with the E.U. would be their No. 1 priority.”