Boris Johnson today warns Brussels that he will walk away from trade talks in five weeks unless the EU ‘rethinks’ its demands.
In a toughly worded ultimatum, the Prime Minister says there is ‘no sense’ in allowing faltering trade talks to continue beyond October 15, when EU leaders are due to hold a major summit in Brussels.
Mr Johnson says there is ‘still an agreement to be had’ but says he ‘cannot and will not compromise on the fundamentals of what it means to be an independent country to get it’, such as the freedom for the UK to set its own laws and fish its own waters.
The development came as it emerged the UK is planning to tear up parts of the Withdrawal Agreement ministers signed with the EU in January – a move that risks further damaging hopes of a deal.
Legislation due to be published this week would effectively wipe out commitments on customs checks between mainland Britain and Northern Ireland. Environment Secretary George Eustice insisted that the Bill was merely clearing up ‘loopholes’ in the pact with Brussels.
But the EU has responded with anger, with Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney warning that reneging on the deal would be ‘unwise’.
Mr Johnson insisted that a No Deal departure would still be a ‘good outcome’ from which the UK would ‘prosper mightily’ as it exploits its new freedoms outside the EU.
Boris Johnson says there is ‘still an agreement to be had’ but says he ‘cannot and will not compromise on the fundamentals of what it means to be an independent country to get it’
‘There needs to be an agreement with our European friends by the time of the European Council on October 15 if it’s going to be in force by the end of the year,’ he said.
‘So there is no sense in thinking about timelines that go beyond that point. If we can’t agree by then, then I do not see that there will be a free trade agreement between us, and we should both accept that and move on.’
Pressed on whether the UK was facing medicine shortages if there is not a trade deal, Health Secretary Matt Hancock told LBC radio: ‘I am comfortable that we have done the work that is needed.’
The PM’s comments come ahead of crunch talks in London tomorrow between UK chief negotiator David Frost and his EU counterpart Michel Barnier.
Lord Frost yesterday vowed he would not ‘blink’ in the face of EU demands to accept continuing Brussels oversight of key areas of British law.
He urged Mr Barnier to ‘take our position seriously’ and act now to salvage talks. Lord Frost said the UK was not willing to be a ‘client state’ of Brussels in any circumstances, adding: ‘We are not going to compromise on the fundamentals of having control of our own laws.’
Meanwhile the UK is planning a bill that would override key parts of the Withdrawal Agreement.
Sections of the internal market bill, due to be published on Wednesday, are believed to ‘eliminate the legal force’ of the Brexit bill passed last October.
This will see Britain renege on promises on contentious areas such as state aid and Northern Ireland customs, the Financial Times reported.
Such a move risks being seen by the EU as an act of bad faith and could further damage hopes of a deal.
However, Mr Eustice insisted it had always been the case that ‘finer points’ of the divorce agreement still needed to be resolved.
‘The deal was always very clear, it had the Northern Ireland protocol, it set out the arrangements that would prevent the need for any checks along the Northern Ireland border but there were also one or two finer points of detail that still had to be resolved,’ he said.
‘Michael Gove is leading on that for us and they’ve been working through some of these very technical issues.
‘All we’re really saying is that once that process is concluded there may still be one or two loose ends and we just need the ability to give people the certainty they need to legislate to give that clarity – that’s all this is about.’
The PM’s comments come ahead of crunch talks in London tomorrow between his chief negotiator David Frost (left) and his EU counterpart Michel Barnier (right)
SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon branded Mr Johnson a ‘charlatan’ over the idea of changing the Withdrawal Agreement
SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon branded Mr Johnson a ‘charlatan’ over the idea of changing the Withdrawal Agreement.
‘If true, this means repudiation by UK govt of a Treaty freely negotiated by it, & described by PM in GE as an ‘oven ready’ deal,’ she tweeted.
‘This will significantly increase likelihood of no deal, and the resulting damage to the economy will be entirely Tory inflicted. What charlatans.’
Yesterday Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said the negotiations were facing a ‘moment of reckoning’ this week – and warned that thousands of jobs across the EU would be put at risk unless Brussels relented.
Mr Raab said there would be a ‘significant downside’ for the economies of EU member states if there was no trade deal, with exports of cars and other goods likely to be hit.
The Department for International Trade will today launch an advertising campaign to warn EU businesses they must prepare for the changes that will come when the Brexit transition period finishes at the end of the year.
Trade talks have been deadlocked for weeks over the EU’s demands on fishing and the so-called ‘level playing field’.
Brussels wants EU trawlers to be guaranteed their current access to Britain’s fishing grounds for ever. Mr Raab told the BBC’s Andrew Marr show that this was unacceptable, adding: ‘Having seen UK fisheries and the fishing industry pretty much decimated as a result of EU membership, the EU’s argument is we should keep control of access to our own fisheries permanently low. That can’t be right.’
An even bigger sticking point is the EU’s insistence that Britain continues to follow EU laws after Brexit in order to guarantee a ‘level playing field’ for continental firms.
Talks are currently stalled over Mr Barnier’s demand to see details of the UK’s new state aid regime before moving on to other areas of negotiation. State aid is the system of rules that cover government support and subsidies for struggling industries.
The Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab (pictured) said the negotiations were facing a ‘moment of reckoning’ this week
Mr Raab said the EU could not ‘credibly be worried’ that the current Conservative administration was likely to push for heavier subsidies than some existing member states. But he said it was a ‘point of principle’ that the UK should set its own rules.
A government source last night added: ‘It is a question of where decisions are made. We had a vote in this country to take back control and we are not going back on that.’ The Prime Minister today stresses he is seeking a simple free trade deal along the lines of the one negotiated between the EU and Canada.
He adds: ‘If the EU are ready to rethink their current positions and agree this, I will be delighted. But we cannot and will not compromise on the fundamentals of what it means to be an independent country to get it.’
Some senior ministers are privately concerned that the UK is not ready to cope with the impact of leaving the EU without a trade deal at the end of this year.
It would leave the UK trading on World Trade Organisation terms, with tariffs on some goods in both directions. Hauliers have warned of disruption to supply lines if there is no agreement on border controls.
A pro-EU protester holds a large homemade sign about the Brexit Irish border issue during People’s Vote march in 2018
But Eurosceptics have long complained that the terms of the Northern Ireland deal are unacceptable and risk undermining the Union by creating a trade border in the Irish Sea.
A Brussels insider told the FT the move would ‘clearly and consciously’ undermine the agreement on Northern Ireland created to avoid a hard border with the Republic.
Last week, the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier warned ‘a precise implementation of the withdrawal agreement’ was vital for the success of the trade talks.
‘It is a very blunt instrument,’ the insider told the FT. ‘The bill will explicitly say the government reserves the right to set its own regime, directly setting up UK law in opposition with obligations under the withdrawal agreement, and in full cognisance that this will breach international law.’
A government spokesman said it was ‘working hard to resolve outstanding issues’ with the Northern Ireland protocol.
He added: ‘As a responsible government, we are considering fallback options in the event this is not achieved to ensure the communities of Northern Ireland are protected.’ Under the withdrawal agreement, the UK must tell Brussels of state aid decisions that would affect Northern Ireland.
It must also make businesses in the province file customs paperwork when sending goods into the rest of the UK.
But clauses in the internal market bill to be debuted this week will soon force the UK courts to follow UK law rather than the agreed deal with the, weakening the current protocol in the agreement.