EU makes no-deal transport offer in return for 'level playing field' agreement

The EU has offered to keep planes, coaches and freight operating across Europe for six months after a no-deal exit – if the government agrees to maintain a “level playing field” in standards, the issue that has dogged the trade and security talks.

In a flurry of announcements, the European commission said it would legislate to temporarily allow airlines from the UK to operate flights across its territory and keep roads open to British hauliers and buses.

The EU will also offer British fishermen access to its seas and open negotiations over quotas, if the UK government reciprocates. But the commission said the offer was for a limited period and it was only willing to act to avoid the worst disruption, including the risk of “public disorder”.

In a move that will only serve to irritate the British government in the context of the troubled talks on a future trade deal, the commission also insisted its offer depended on the UK having “equivalent” regulations.

“A level playing field requires that, even after the end of the transition period, the UK continues to apply sufficiently high and comparable standards,” the contingency documents state.

Boris Johnson’s spokesman said the publication of the EU’s contingency plans had been expected and the plans echoed proposals from September 2019. “We’ll obviously look at the details very closely. We’ve already set out our own plans in the event of a free trade agreement not being reached,” he said.

He played down the risks of supply disruption in the event of no deal, saying the UK had a “resilient supply chain” and had made extensive preparations.

The publication of the contingency measures, long sought by EU member states, follows agreement on a new Sunday deadline for the negotiations between the UK’s chief negotiator, David Frost, and his EU counterpart, Michel Barnier.

The timetable was set at a dinner in Brussels on Wednesday night between Johnson and the European commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, where “frank” and “lively” exchanges led to little being resolved.

On Thursday the UK foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, said the talks were unlikely to be extended beyond Sunday’s deadline without substantial concessions from Brussels.

But in a hint that the government hopes discussions might continue after the weekend if progress is being made, Johnson’s spokesman said: “Both the prime minister and Ursula von der Leyen have agreed that a firm decision should be made about the future of talks by Sunday.” He declined to say what the substance of any potential compromise might be.

Raab said Brussels would need to back down from its demands on controlling fishing waters and laws on standards.

“It’s fair to say that, whilst there was a good conversation last night, and it was frank and it was candid, the significant points of difference remain.

I don’t think we can keep going on at that pace without having some progress and some flexibility,” he told the BBC.

“On the fisheries, we’ve accepted that there needs to be some sort of transitional period but we must be able to control access to our own waters. We’ve agreed that we’d follow the EU’s approach to free trade deals with countries like Canada and Korea in relation to the so-called level playing field requirements.

“What we’re not going to be treated … is in a way that no other country would accept, and nor would the EU accept. It’s about some basic respect for democratic principles.” Raab accused the bloc of lacking “pragmatism and flexibility”.

Stephan Mayer, a state secretary at Germany’s interior ministry, told the BBC that no deal “would be the worst solution for both sides”.

The Tesco chairman, John Allan, has suggested food bills could rise by 5% as a result of the tariffs and disruption from a no-deal Brexit.

But Raab told the BBC that tariffs would be a “very minor proportion” of food prices.

“Of all the things that will be a challenge, I am not concerned about either supermarket cupboards running bare or the cost of food prices. Equally, there will be some bumps along the road if we don’t get a free trade deal, that’s the inevitable consequence of change. But we will be well braced and well prepared to deal with those, and we are going to make a success of leaving the transition period, come what may.”

The Road Haulage Association gave a guarded welcome to the proposed six-month easement for road connectivity.

The body was granted fewer than 2,000 driver permits in the annual lottery for third-country hauliers driving into the EU, a fraction of the 10,000 it needed.

Under EU rules, drivers can drive into the bloc picking up and delivering across multiple countries, but from 1 January an ECMT permit will be mandatory for full and empty trucks.

Rod McKenzie, the director of policy at the RHA, said: “As it stands there are 8,000 UK haulage companies who are very worried they don’t have this driver passport.

We have told them not to panic until we get more details from this Ursula von der Leyen announcement, but it is a safe bet that it means we won’t need them for the first six months of next year in the event of no deal.”