British Prime Minister Boris Johnson will tell the European Union he’s prepared to walk away from trade talks rather than compromise on what he regards as a core principle of Brexit, as the feeling grows on both sides that a breakthrough will prove impossible when negotiations resume in London this week.
The British prime minister was setting the October 15 European Council meeting as the deadline for a deal. And he’ll say the UK is prepared to end the Brexit transition period without one, if necessary, at year-end – a scenario he’ll describe as a “good outcome”, his office said in an emailed statement.
“There is still an agreement to be had,” Johnson will say, pledging that his government will work hard through September and urging the bloc to “rethink” its positions. “But we cannot and will not compromise on the fundamentals of what it means to be an independent country to get it.”
A European diplomat, who asked not to be named in line with policy, said informal consultations ahead of this week’s talks yielded no shift in positions. A second diplomat said the view in Brussels is that there’s a fight between Brexit realists and Brexit ideologues in the British government, and it’s uncertain which side will prevail.
Meanwhile a spokesperson confirmed the government is “considering fallback options” in case it can’t resolve “outstanding issues” in the Brexit withdrawal agreement related to Northern Ireland.
The Financial Times reported that a planned internal market bill to ensure smooth trade between the four UK nations will override key parts of the withdrawal agreement on state aid and Northern Ireland customs – a move people familiar with the plans told the newspaper will undermine prospects of a trade deal.
The UK will revert to trading with its biggest market on terms set by the World Trade Organisation if there’s no agreement in place by December 31. That means the return of certain tariffs and quotas, as well as extra paperwork for businesses. Though the British government describes that as an “Australia-style” agreement, it’s an outcome feared by British businesses who warn of severe disruptions to vital just-in-time supply chains.
Johnson will say that in the absence of a deal, the UK will be “ready to find sensible accommodation on practical issues,” including aviation, haulage, and scientific cooperation, according to his office.
The two sides have been at an impasse for months over state aid and fisheries. The EU is seeking to keep the access its fisherman currently have to UK waters to protect jobs and coastal communities, while Britain wants reduced access for EU boats and to make it conditional on regular negotiations.
On state aid, or so-called level playing field regulations, Johnson’s government wants the freedom to chart its own course, while the EU is demanding to know what the British government plans to ensure fair competition.
Negotiators have scheduled eight hours of talks on both issues this week, according to an agenda published on Friday.
On Sunday, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab accused the bloc of trying to undermine the UK’s Brexit decision by keeping it bound to the rules of the EU’s single market.
“This week is an important moment for the EU to really effectively recognise that those two points of principles are not something we can just haggle away – they are the very reasons we are leaving the EU,” Raab told Sky News. He said the issue of state aid is a “point of principle” for the UK rather than an indication the government is preparing major interventions.
“I don’t think the EU should be worried about that,” he said.
There’s pessimism in Brussels about the prospects of a breakthrough, and for now, Brexit isn’t on the agenda of the September 24 EU summit.
Michel Barnier, the bloc’s top negotiator, said last week he was “worried” and “disappointed” by the current state of the talks, saying Britain would need to shift its position to reach an agreement.
The EU also hit back at reports in the British media that Barnier is being sidelined in an attempt to push forward a trade agreement, calling them “unfounded rumours”.
“Whoever wants to engage with the EU on Brexit needs to engage with Michel Barnier,” Sebastian Fischer, a Brussels-based spokesman for the German government, whose country holds the EU presidency, said in a tweet over the weekend.
The two sides are even at loggerheads on how to negotiate, with the EU demanding progress on all issues and the UK seeking initial agreements on less contentious points to build momentum toward a final deal.
But ahead of the meetings, the UK’s chief negotiator, David Frost, warned that his side would “not blink”, and contrasted Johnson’s steadfast approach with that of his predecessor, Theresa May. British officials have also repeatedly complained about the EU’s position.
“A lot of what we are trying to do this year is to get them to realise that we mean what we say and they should take our position seriously,” Frost said in an interview with The Mail on Sunday.
The stand-off comes amid warnings from British businesses, particularly the haulage industry, about the UK’s ability to mitigate disruption at ports.
Raab told the BBC on Sunday that earlier planning for a no-deal Brexit and the measures put in place during the coronavirus pandemic have put the UK “in a much stronger place” to handle the risks. “But we’d much rather have a deal with the EU.”