Britain said on Wednesday (8 January) it could seek a piecemeal post-Brexit deal with the European Union that leaves some issues unresolved but still lets it break free from the bloc at the end of the year.
Downing Street said Prime Minister Boris Johnson delivered the message to Ursula von der Leyen in their first meeting in her capacity as European Commission president – and with Britain’s formal departure just three weeks away.
Both sides are eager to move on from the tumult and acrimony that followed Britain’s decision in a 2016 referendum to end its decades-long membership of the bloc.
Johnson secured a comfortable majority in parliament in a December election and is virtually assured that his divorce deal with Brussels will finally be approved by January 31.
But that leaves just 11 months until the end of 2020 for the sides to agree a new economic partnership covering everything from trade to data protection policies.
Britain will keep following EU rules and paying its membership fees during the transition talks.
Johnson has until July 1 to ask Brussels for a one- or two-year delay. His office stressed again on Wednesday that “there will be no extension”.
“We are very clear we want to get on in terms of negotiating a deal,” a Downing Street spokesman told reporters.
“So maybe the approach of nothing is agreed until everything is agreed which characterised previous negotiations is not an approach that we are interested in taking.”
Von der Leyen warned Johnson ahead of their meeting that Britain risked losing open access to the European market – the world’s largest and Britain’s most important for trade – without compromises.
“With every choice comes a consequence. With every decision comes a trade-off,” she said in a keynote speech at the London School of Economics.
“It is basically impossible to negotiate all I have been mentioning. Therefore, we will have to prioritise, as long as we face that deadline of end of 2020.”
11 months to strike a deal
The European Union has never reached a trade deal with any of its partners in just 11 months.
The bloc’s agreements with Canada and Singapore – two models Britain has considered in the past – took around nine years.
But Johnson is eager to brandish his Brexit credentials and reap what he considers to be the benefits of independence from Brussels.
These include much more leeway in negotiating free trade agreements with the United States and growing countries in Asia down the line.
London’s booming financial district would also be free from outside oversight that outgoing Bank of England head Mark Carney warned on Wednesday could “tie our hands”.
Croatia’s Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency until July, when Germany takes over, said both sides needed to be “realistic” about what can be achieved because of the time constraints.
“That means not to put on to the plate too many dossiers which we may not be able to deal with in the end of the time,” he told a news conference in Zagreb but said it was too early to say if more time would be required.
Trade and fishing would be core issues, he said.
Downing Street said Johnson made clear to von der Leyen “that any future partnership must not involve any kind of alignment or (European Court of Justice) jurisdiction.
“He said the UK would also maintain control of UK fishing waters and our immigration system,” Johnson’s office said after the talks.
But Britain’s refusal to align itself with the bloc on issues such as environmental standards and workers’ rights could see UK companies face EU tariffs.
This threatens to disrupt global supply chains and deliver a potentially fatal blow to Britain’s politically sensitive auto and aerospace industries.
Von der Leyen stressed that Brussels preferred to keep close relations “with zero tariffs, zero quotas, zero dumping”.
“And we are ready to work day and night to get as much of this done within the timeframe we have.”
European lawmakers also intend to pass a resolution next week urging Brussels negotiators to push for EU citizens to retain their right to live and work in Britain after 2020.
Johnson stripped the provision out of the deal that the British parliament is expected to approve Thursday.
Security minister Brandon Lewis said on Tuesday the rights of EU citizens to live and access benefits would be protected in a “far more generous” system than one available to Britons in many parts of Europe.