Friday 14 February 2020

Negotiating the future relationship between the UK and EU: the proposed EU negotiating mandate

Professor Steve Peers, University of Essex

Last week the process of negotiating the future relationship between the UK and the EU formally began. On the EU side, the Commission published the proposed negotiation mandate (an annex to a decision) for the future EU/UK relationship. For the UK, the government published a parliamentary statement.

There was also a speech by the Prime Minister, but this was intended for a domestic audience: amateur dramatics, not professional trade policy. Suffice it to say that: the withdrawal agreement does not govern trade between the UK (other than Northern Ireland) and the EU after the end of the transition period it sets out (discussed here), and the minimal trade arrangements between the EU and Australia cannot honestly be described as an “Australia deal”. One might as well refer to a food bank as an “Australian Waitrose”, or a desperate dash to the bushes as an “Australian toilet”. Indeed, Australia is seeking to improve on these minimal arrangements by negotiating a free trade agreement (FTA) with the EU.

The following analysis summarises the proposed EU negotiating mandate, further comparing it to the mutually agreed political declaration on the future relationship (which I previously annotated here). It explains where the EU position has departed from or elaborated upon the political declaration. Obviously, the EU position differs in some respects – but not all – from the UK position, which is why negotiations are expected to be difficult.

Legal basics

On the EU side, the first thing to notes is that this is a proposal for a negotiation mandate. Under Article 218 TFEU, which sets out how the EU negotiates international treaties, first of all the Commission proposes a mandate to negotiate with a non-EU country. Next, the Council, ie Member States' ministers, decides on adoption of that mandate. Under the Commission’s proposal the ministers would have to act unanimously (more on that below).

The Council is expected to complete this next step later in February, after ministers and national civil servants representing them examine the proposal. It’s possible (and common) for the Council to change the text of a negotiating mandate proposed by the Commission – although such changes are unlikely to be radical.  In fact, it seems certain that the Council will amend this proposal (for the text of the main decision as agreed, see here; the more detailed annex is not yet agreed).

After that point the third step starts – the formal negotiations with the UK, in which the Commission is the negotiator. Note that the Commission will have a mandate from Member States when doing so: Michel Barnier will not be on a frolic of his own. (This point was often missed during the withdrawal agreement negotiations). As the proposed mandate states, during the negotiations the Commission will be reporting back to a 'special committee' of Member States’ officials. In fact this committee was set up recently. It's made up of Member States' officials who keep an eye on the Commission as negotiator. This isn't unique to these talks; it's a requirement in Article 218 of the Treaties as regards all international treaty negotiations.

There's no formal role for the European Parliament at this point, although it can pass non-binding resolutions (such as the one passed earlier this week). It will have a veto over the final agreement. At first sight the proposal doesn't take a view on whether ratification by each national parliament will be needed. This will depend on the content of the final text, as the Commission’s Q and As explicitly point out.

Timing of the talks

The transition period in the withdrawal agreement expires at the end of the year, meaning that the de facto current treatment of the UK as a Member State of the EU will then expire. While the withdrawal agreement’s provisions on issues like citizens’ rights and Northern Ireland will still apply, most of the relationship between the UK and EU will end at that point unless new treaties replace it.

Although the transition period could be extended by one or two years if both sides agree (the deadline to agree this is 30 June 2020), the UK objects in principle to any extension. The negotiation mandate decision mentions a possible extension, but the Commission proposal doesn't discuss the UK objection to extending the transition period. Rather it aims to get as much as possible done during the available time. It does refer to the jointly agreed ‘best endeavours’ to agree a new fisheries treaty by July 2020 (para 74 of the political declaration), saying that a fisheries treaty ‘should’ be agreed by that point. But it does not explicitly make this a condition for further negotiations, and the Q and As refer to ‘parallel’ negotiations, not to negotiations on fisheries exclusively at first.   

Form of the relationship

The Commission proposal refers to a ‘single package’ with general provisions, economic arrangements, and security arrangements. This possibly implies a single treaty, although the Commission does not say so expressly.  It would also be possible to have separate treaties which are linked in some way.

Furthermore, the Commission is seeking legal authority to negotiate an association agreement on the basis of Article 217 TFEU, although it avoids using those actual words. It notes that when it comes to the end of the negotiations, things might be different. (For instance, the scope of the agreement might be narrower, or it might take the form of multiple treaties: either way, this could change the ‘legal base’ of the treaty or treaties concerned).

Legally, an association agreement (if that's what is eventually negotiated) requires unanimity in Council and consent of the European Parliament. It might need ratification by national parliaments but that depends on the content (as the Q and As point out). It can be put in force provisionally (at least partially) if needed.

Territorial scope

The Commission proposes that Gibraltar is outside the scope of the planned negotiations (para 162 of the proposal). This is not a new EU position, and is not a territorial claim: the point has often been misreported. As the Commission points out, the EU position goes back to 2018, when the European Council took the view that any agreement regarding Gibraltar would be separate, and subject to the agreement of Spain:

After the United Kingdom leaves the Union, Gibraltar will not be included in the territorial scope of the agreements to be concluded between the Union and the United Kingdom. However, this does not preclude the possibility to have separate agreements between the Union and the United Kingdom in respect of Gibraltar. Without prejudice to the competences of the Union and in full respect of the territorial integrity of its Member States as guaranteed by Article 4(2) of the Treaty on European Union, those separate agreements will require a prior agreement of the Kingdom of Spain.

In any event, every Member State will have a veto over the future relationship treaty with the UK anyway, if it remains an association agreement as the Commission proposes.

Data protection

The proposed mandate (para 12) refers to an adequacy decision on UK data protection law. Note that an adequacy decision is a unilateral decision by the EU under the GDPR. The political declaration (para 9) referred to an objective to adopt such decisions by the end of 2020. There is another reference to data protection in the security part of the proposed mandate (see below). Cooperation between regulators, which was mentioned in the political declaration (para 10), is not mentioned explicitly in the proposed mandate.

EU programmes

The proposed mandate (para 13) would cover UK participation in EU programmes, such as research funding and Erasmus. The wording of the proposed mandate reflects the political declaration (para 11). Northern Ireland peace funding is also mentioned (para 14, proposed mandate; compare para 13, political declaration). However, there is no explicit mention of association with European research infrastructure (which was mentioned in para 12, political declaration). Note that the EU has not yet agreed the conditions for non-EU countries to access the next phase of EU programmes: for the draft text on this, see Article 16 of the proposed new Erasmus programme.

There’s no explicit mention of negotiation of UK links to the European Investment Bank, although the political declaration (para 15) only referred to the UK’s intention to seek such links, without suggesting that the EU side shared this objective.

Economic partnership

The core of the UK/EU economic partnership would be a free trade agreement (FTA) covering both goods and services (para 16 of the proposed mandate). It's often inaccurately claimed that there's no intention for an FTA in services between the UK and EU, but both sides have always intended to negotiate one (paras 19 and 28 of the political declaration). But note that an FTA falls short of single market participation. Unlike the political declaration, the proposed mandate makes an explicit link between the economic partnership and fisheries and a ‘level playing field’.

Free trade in goods

The proposed mandate (para 19) provides for no tariffs or quotas. However, unlike the position as a Member State (and during the transition period), the mandate refers to rules of origin, to determine where goods come from (para 20). This is an extra burden on trade between the UK and EU compared to EU membership, and is a consequence of the UK's decision not to negotiate a customs union. This reflects the political declaration (para 22); indeed a reference to a need for rules of origin was added to the revised version of the political declaration (whereas the first version of the political declaration ruled them out).

The reference to using the EU’s standard preferential rules of origin is new, and presumably refers to the pan-European rules (PEM Convention) in use between the EU and other countries across Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. Using the standard rules will be simpler and quicker than negotiating from scratch (rules of origin often take some time to negotiate in FTA talks).

Next, the negotiating mandate refers to introducing anti-dumping duties, anti-subsidy duties and economic safeguards between the UK and EU, referring to WTO rules. Again, this is a new possible barrier in UK/EU trade. Such measures are provided for in most FTAs (not just the EU’s: the US applies anti-subsidy duties to some Canadian products, for instance). For EU FTAs, the only exception is the European Economic Area (EEA), which rules out anti-dumping and anti-subsidy duties for most products, because the countries concerned have signed up to EU single market laws. The possibility of such measures is therefore not a ‘punishment’, but the inevitable consequence of the UK’s decision to leave the EU without remaining a participant in the single market.

The possibility of such measures would be there even without an FTA between the UK and EU. The objective of such measures is, respectively, to react to goods sold below their normal value (anti-dumping), subsidised by States (anti-subsidy), or which damage domestic producers (economic safeguard) – subject to more detailed definitions and procedural obligations in the WTO Codes dealing with these issues. 

The proposed negotiation mandate also extends to customs facilitation and agreement on non-tariff barriers (technical and sanitary rules), going beyond WTO provisions. However, it does not mention the possibility of UK links with EU medical, chemical, and aviation safety agencies, even though the political declaration referred to this possibility (para 23).

Free trade in services

The proposed mandate refers to an FTA in services going beyond WTO commitments, but as usual the EU will exclude audio visual services. This exclusion was not mentioned in the political declaration, but is hardly unexpected. On the other hand the proposed mandate mentions free trade in certain services sectors that were also expressly mentioned in the political declaration: professional and business services, telecommunications services, courier and postal services, distribution services, environmental services, financial services and transport services.

This will include movement of service providers (as required by WTO rules on FTAs in services), but this falls short of free movement of people. There is a general reference to agreement on investment (not just in services industries), but as under the political declaration there is little further detail. The proposed mandate also includes recognition of professional qualifications, as referred to in the political declaration (para 34). Financial services equivalence decisions will be unilateral.

Intellectual property

It’s usual for FTAs to include provisions on intellectual property, going beyond WTO and other international rules. Here the big EU ask here is protection for future ‘geographical indications’ (GIs: these are rules which specify that, for example, ‘feta cheese’ must originate from Greece). Note that current GIs are protected in the withdrawal agreement, so the negotiation here would be about future GIs. There’s also a reference to maintaining current protection in many other areas of IP, where there is extensive EU legislation going beyond international IP treaties. There’s no reference to what happens to the plan that the UK hosts part of the planned Unified Patent Court, which is linked to an attempt to create a unified EU patent. Some specific references to IP issues in the political declaration (databases, resale rights, exhaustion of rights) do not appear explicitly in the proposed mandate. The notion of still applying EU standards might be an issue in the case of the controversial recent EU copyright law, which the UK supported when it was adopted but now intends not to apply.

Public procurement

As is common for FTAs, the mandate envisages opening up public procurement markets more than under the WTO procurement agreement. This reflects the political declaration, although note that the rhetoric on this issue in the UK is inconsistent, with an obvious conflict between the competing slogans of "Buy British" economic nationalism on the one hand, and export oriented "Global Britain" on the other. Since the UK is signing up to the WTO procurement agreement in its own name and non-EU countries may also wish to include additional procurement obligations in FTAs, the “Buy British” folks may be disappointed – although opening up markets reciprocally enables exporting British companies to sell their goods and services too.


The proposed mandate falls short of free movement of people here. It refers to waiving visa requirements for short term travel, which the EU has done already unilaterally on the condition of reciprocity (see discussion here). A visa waiver treaty between the two sides could go further – most notably waiving visa requirements for paid activities (which is now an option for Member States), which would be useful for the music industry, for instance. But it is not clear if the Commission is referring to a visa waiver treaty.  Note that the section on mobility is in addition to the planned negotiations on services, which would include some movement of people (discussed above).

The proposed mandate also refers to “setting out conditions” relating to migration of students and researchers (areas where the EU has already legislated on non-EU migration, as discussed here). There could also be agreement on social security coordination, but note that this would be for future UK/EU migration. Those who moved before the end of the transition period are covered by the withdrawal agreement (see discussion here), which also covers the common travel area referred to in the proposed mandate. Note that there’s no reference to possible negotiations on retaining free movement rights for UK citizens in the EU before the end of the transition period.

There’s no mention of the political declaration’s reference to facilitating travel (para 53 of the declaration), perhaps because of the UK government’s plan to match the EU’s planned advance travel authorisation system. Nor is there any reference to negotiations on family law civil judicial cooperation as mentioned in the political declaration (para 56), although it is understood that the Council draft of the mandate will insert text on this.


On air transport, the proposed mandate states that the UK will not have the same market access as an EU Member State, but is willing to negotiate. It also refers to aviation safety standards.

On land transport, it refers to market access for road haulage, but not cabotage (haulage within a single Member State/multiple Member States). This would be linked to a standstill on social rules relating to drivers plus tachograph discussions (this concerns the devices keeping track of how long drivers are driving for). There’s no reference to private motorists, although the political declaration referred to them.

The text refers to international law on coach transport, which suggests that the UK and EU would not negotiate additional provisions. On rail transport, there’s a reference to the Channel Tunnel; it’s understood that the Council will add a reference to Dublin/Belfast rail links here, in accordance with a reference in the political declaration.

There’s no reference to maritime transport, although again it’s understood that the Council will add a reference to possible negotiations on this issue, matching a reference in the political declaration. It remains to be seen whether the reference to cooperation with the EU maritime safety agency in the political declaration will be retained.


The proposed mandate has a number of references to renewable energy, along with a level playing field on carbon pricing, and a Euratom deal including a standstill on nuclear safety standards and isotope issues. (On post-Brexit relations with Euratom, see my earlier discussion). The Council will likely add a reference to nuclear waste, perhaps reflecting Irish concerns about Sellafield.


The focus of the proposal is EU traditional fishing in UK waters, with a link to the rest of the economic partnership, and a reference to agreed July target date. As noted above, the target date does not seem to be an absolute demand.  The Council is likely to strengthen the EU’s position here. The topic is a prime candidate for crashing the whole negotiations – as is the next topic...

Level playing field

The term ‘level playing field’ might be used differently in other contexts, but for these discussions it refers to law on State aid, competition law, and aspects of tax, labour and environmental law. It’s common for the EU to require some form of LPF clauses in its FTAs, but the question is whether to go beyond the usual provisions in the EU/UK FTA – with the rationale for the EU side being that the FTA would go further in abolishing all tariffs than other EU FTAs go.

The first point to emphasise is that in addition to being in other EU FTAs, the UK signed up to the concept of LPF in the political declaration. Both sides agreed that the LPF:

…should be commensurate with the scope and depth of the future relationship and the economic connectedness of the Parties. These commitments should prevent distortions of trade and unfair competitive advantages. To that end, the Parties should uphold the common high standards applicable in the Union and the United Kingdom at the end of the transition period in the areas of state aid, competition, social and employment standards, environment, climate change, and relevant tax matters. The Parties should in particular maintain a robust and comprehensive framework for competition and state aid control that prevents undue distortion of trade and competition; commit to the principles of good governance in the area of taxation and to the curbing of harmful tax practices; and maintain environmental, social and employment standards at the current high levels provided by the existing common standards. In so doing, they should rely on appropriate and relevant Union and international standards, and include appropriate mechanisms to ensure effective implementation domestically, enforcement and dispute settlement as part of the future relationship. The future relationship should also promote adherence to and effective implementation of relevant internationally agreed principles and rules in these domains, including the Paris Agreement.

So the commitment was to ‘uphold common high standards’ applicable in the EU and UK at the end of the transition period; ‘maintain’ standards ‘at the current high levels provided by the existing common standards’; ‘rely on appropriate and relevant Union and international standards’; and include provisions on implementation, enforcement and dispute settlement. So there were several references to EU rules, most in the context of a standstill, but partly more open-ended (ie possibly application of future rules too); and a general reference to dispute settlement, with no specific reference here to the CJEU (but see the reference to the CJEU role below).

The proposed negotiating mandate partly repeats this text, but also adds many points. On LPF enforcement in general, it states that the EU ‘should also have the possibility to apply autonomous interim measures to react quickly to disruptions of the equal conditions of competition in relevant areas’. On future measures, it states that the ‘envisaged partnership should commit the Parties to continue improving their respective levels of protection with the goal of ensuring high levels of protection’, with the governing body having power to extend the LPF or add to it over time (note that the governing body would have to act jointly).

On specific issues, EU State aid should apply ‘to and in’ the UK, although they would be enforced by an independent UK body, not the Commission; and disputes ‘about the application of State aid rules in the United Kingdom should be subject to dispute settlement’. For competition law, general provisions similar to EU law (although here there is no specific cross-reference to EU law) should apply as regards EU/UK trade, along with a commitment to ‘effective enforcement’. There should be limits on special rights for state-owned enterprises, with no specific reference to EU law or enforcement.

On tax, there should be a commitment to international standards, and also the UK should apply ‘the common standards applicable within the Union and the United Kingdom at the end of the transition period in relation to at least the following areas: exchange of information on income, financial accounts, tax rulings, country-by-country reports, beneficial ownership and potential cross-border tax planning arrangements’, along with ‘the fight against tax avoidance practices and public country-by-country reporting by credit-institutions and investment firms’, and (without reference to common standards) ‘the Parties’ commitment to curb harmful tax measures, taking into account the G20-OECD BEPS Action Plan’ and the UK reaffirming ‘its commitment to the Code of Conduct for Business Taxation’.

On employment law, there should be no reduction ‘below the level provided by the common standards applicable within the Union and the United Kingdom at the end of the transition period in relation to at least the following areas: fundamental rights at work; occupational health and safety, including the precautionary principle; fair working conditions and employment standards; and information and consultation rights at company level and restructuring’. There should also be provision on enforcement within the UK, ‘through adequately resourced domestic authorities, an effective system of labour inspections and effective administrative and judicial proceedings’.

On the environment, again the LPF should provide that ‘the common level of environmental protection provided by laws, regulations and practices is not reduced below the level provided by the common standards applicable within the Union and the United Kingdom at the end of the transition period’. The text refers to ‘at least the following areas: access to environmental information; public participation and access to justice in environmental matters; environmental impact assessment and strategic environmental assessment; industrial emissions; air emissions and air quality targets and ceilings; nature and biodiversity conservation; waste management; the protection and preservation of the aquatic environment; the protection and preservation of the marine environment; the prevention, reduction and elimination of risks to human health or the environment arising from the production, use, release and disposal of chemical substances; and climate change.’

Also, the LPF ‘should lay down minimum commitments reflecting standards, including targets, in place at the end of the transition period in those areas, where relevant’; ‘should ensure the Parties respect the precautionary principle and the principles that preventive action should be taken, that environmental damage should as a priority be rectified at source and that the polluter should pay’. For enforcement, again, the LPF ‘should ensure that the United Kingdom implements a transparent system for the effective domestic monitoring, reporting, oversight and enforcement of its obligations by an independent and adequately resourced body or bodies’. (Note that the proposed Environment Bill would include some provisions to this effect).

There are also some specific provisions on climate change: the UK should maintain ‘a system of carbon pricing of at least the same effectiveness and scope as provided by the common standards, including targets, agreed within the Union before the end of the transition period and applicable for the period thereafter’, and the two sides ‘should consider linking a United Kingdom national greenhouse gas emissions trading system with the Union’s Emissions Trading System (ETS)’ which should be ‘based on the conditions agreed within the Union, ensure the integrity of the Union’s ETS and a level playing field, and provide for the possibility to increase the level of ambition over time’. Besides carbon pricing systems, the LPF should ensure that the UK ‘does not reduce the level of protection below the level provided by the common standards, including targets, agreed within the Union by the end of the transition period and applicable for the period thereafter’.

The proposal also refers to ‘adherence to and effective implementation of relevant’ international rules, which ‘should include’ International Labour Organisation conventions, the Council of Europe European Social Charter and multilateral environmental agreements including those related to climate change, including the Paris Agreement. On top of that, where the parties have higher standards above the minimum commitments, ‘the envisaged partnership should prevent them from lowering those additional levels in order to encourage trade and investment.’

Has the EU ‘moved the goalposts’ here? The agreed text in the political declaration refers explicitly to both EU and UK standards, vaguely to dispute settlement, and indirectly to future measures. It’s not surprising that the EU puts forward a maximalist interpretation of this, or that the UK puts forward a minimalist interpretation – although it cannot seriously be argued that the political declaration made no commitment to a standstill as regards EU standards.

There’s nothing here on exactly how dispute settlement would work, besides a reference to EU retaliation. This is significant because in the first withdrawal agreement, which contained much of the detail which the Commission proposes here, dispute settlement was limited: only some issues could be subject to the dispute settlement regime in that text (in particular, disputes about the substance of labour and environmental commitments could not be subject to dispute settlement; only disputes about enforcement systems for those obligations could be). So even the references to EU law in the LPF part of that agreement did not mean that the CJEU would have jurisdiction via dispute settlement arbitrators to interpret them, since the dispute settlement arbitrators would never get hold of such disputes in the first place.

This also meant that EU retaliation for the breach of such obligations was impossible, since retaliation was only possible via the dispute settlement system. While the draft negotiation mandate refers to possible EU retaliation for breach of LPF rules, it’s not clear if the limits on such retaliation (both in terms of which issues are subject to dispute settlement and the constraints on retaliation within the dispute settlement system) would be different from the limits in the first withdrawal agreement. It should be noted that in the first withdrawal agreement, UK retaliation against EU breaches was also possible within the dispute settlement system; one might expect that the UK would argue that it should similarly have reciprocal powers to retaliate in the future relationship treaties.

Security cooperation

In the proposal, the security cooperation is not linked to the LPF or fisheries. But instead it would be made dependent not only on UK adherence to the ECHR, but also the Human Rights Act (HRA), along with the unilateral adequacy decision on data protection - expressly referring to possible CJEU challenges (see the challenges to adequacy decisions relating to the US, discussed here). The ECHR and data protection points reflect para 81 of the political declaration, which referred to the ECHR ‘underpinning’ the relationship; the HRA point goes beyond it. Also, there would be fair trial and double jeopardy standards.

The Commission position here reflects the issues that would be litigated anyway about data protection and human rights standards in the UK. They are already litigated as regards non-EU countries and other Member States.

For police cooperation, the proposal refers to passenger name records, DNA/fingerprint/vehicle info, and exchange of information in individual cases. There is no mention of the Schengen Information System (which the UK currently applies as regards criminal law data) and the exchange of information in individual cases can't simply copy it. As regards PNR, the Commission refers to a CJEU case discussed here, which sets out limits on what the EU can exchange with non-EU countries to comply with data protection standards. On PNR and DNA data et al, the proposal reflects the political declaration. On individual exchanges of information instead of the Schengen Information System, the proposal is explicit on the issue whereas the political declaration fudged it (because the two sides did not agree).

On criminal justice cooperation, there is a reference to fast track extradition. Note that the EU, Norway and Iceland have agreed an extradition treaty which is very similar to the European Arrest Warrant applied between EU countries, but with certain exceptions.  Also it refers to exchanging evidence and criminal records in a similar way to existing EU laws, which would limit the impact of the UK leaving the EU on these issues. Note that this would probably go further than the EU has gone with other non-EU countries.

Foreign policy

In this area, the Commission proposes "alignment" on sanctions (the only explicit use of the word in its proposal). There would be case by case involvement in defence missions or defence industry projects (reflecting the wording of the political declaration, which makes clear that the UK would not be tied to EU defence cooperation against its will), and limited access to Galileo.

Governance and dispute settlement

Finally, the future relationship treaties would have a joint committee to oversee and implement them (which is standard in international treaties). To settle disputes, there would be consultation then binding arbitration. The CJEU would be involved if an issue concerns the interpretation of EU law (as explicitly agreed in the political declaration). There is NO reference to CJEU involvement otherwise (note that the political declaration explicitly ruled that out). The mechanics of dispute settlement are not spelled out in detail; it is possible that they might be based on the provisions in the withdrawal agreement (see my annotation and analysis of them here).

As discussed in the LPF section above, it is possible that some parts of the agreement might not be subject to dispute settlement at all, in which case there is no issue of CJEU involvement or any other remedies issue (unless the agreement allows for remedies to be applied without such remedies being subject to dispute settlement). So the CJEU would only have jurisdiction over the UK in the future relationship treaty where the agreement a) refers to EU law AND b) provides for dispute settlement. Again: key parts of the level playing field in the first withdrawal agreement met condition a) but NOT b). The details of the future treaty therefore will be crucial.

Barnard & Peers: chapter 26
Photo credit: Wikimedia commons

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