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EU warns of ‘serious divergences’ after first Brexit trade talks

The European Union's lead negotiator, Michel Barnier, warned of "serious divergences" after wrapping up the first week of talks with Britain on post-Brexit relations touching on each side's basic stance on fisheries and criminal justice cooperation.

The European Union’s lead negotiator, Michel Barnier, warned of “serious divergences” after wrapping up the first week of talks with Britain on post-Brexit relations touching on each side’s basic stance on fisheries and criminal justice cooperation.

“Our differences come as no surprise,” Michel Barnier said in Brussels on Thursday, though he also took time to name the extent of British alignment with EU standards.

The two sides have until the end of the year to strike a deal on trade and issues such as security cooperation before EU rules cease to apply to Britain. Even though Britain left on January 31, it has agreed to abide by EU rules through the end of 2020.

Britain is threatening to walk away from the negotiations if they fail to deliver significant progress by June. Without a deal, the substantial trade between both sides reverts to basic World Trade Organization rules, imposing tariffs and other barriers.

Brussels is offering a wide-ranging free trade deal that would avoid any tariffs or quotas, on condition that Britain agrees to so-called level playing field commitments, which would stop it from undercutting EU standards in areas such as state subsidies and environmental or labour laws.

London, on the other hand, stresses that the negotiations are about regaining political and economic sovereignty, including the right to set its own rules. Britain says it has no interest in lowering standards.

“There will be changes,” Barnier stressed on Thursday, whether Britain and the EU can strike a deal or not.

The talks began Monday afternoon in Brussels, with each side bringing a team of 110-120 officials, Barnier said. New rounds of negotiations are scheduled every two to three weeks from here on out.

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