The United Kingdom appeared to be on the brink of walking away from talks on a trade deal with the EU after Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Friday (16 October) that the EU had “abandoned the idea of a free trade deal.”
Without “some fundamental change of approach” by the EU, the UK would choose to conduct future trade with the bloc on World Trade Organisation terms from January, said Johnson, adding that London would now step up its planning for a ‘no deal’ scenario.
In his statement, issued after EU leaders discussed post-Brexit talks with the UK at a summit in Brussels on Thursday, Johnson accused the EU of having “refused to negotiate seriously for much of the last few months”.
“Given that this summit appears explicitly to rule out a Canada-style deal, I’ve concluded that we should get ready for 1 January with arrangements that are more like Australia’s, based on simple principles of global free trade,” Johnson said.
“They want the continued ability to control our legislative freedom, our fisheries, in a way that is completely unacceptable to an independent country,” he added.
The UK formally left the bloc in January and the post-Brexit transition phase, during which it remains part of the EU single market, ends at the end of this year.
Having been badly hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, the UK economy is projected to fall by 10% in 2020 followed by a 7.6% recovery in 2021. Earlier this week, the OECD warned that a “disorderly” exit from the EU at the end of the Brexit transition period “would have a major negative impact on trade and jobs.”
However, EU officials were not surprised by the tough rhetoric from Johnson, and talks are set to continue next week.
🇪🇺-🇬🇧 talks: the EU continues to work for a deal, but not at any price.
As planned, our negotiation team will go to London next week to intensify these negotiations.
— Ursula von der Leyen (@vonderleyen) October 16, 2020
In response to Johnson’s statement, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen tweeted that “the EU continues to work for a deal, but not at any price.”
“As planned, our negotiation team will go to London next week to intensify these negotiations,” she added.
At the European Council summit, EU leaders took a similar stance to Johnson, demanding further compromises from the UK if a deal is to be reached.
In their summit communique, the EU-27 asked their chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, to “continue negotiations in the coming weeks”, but noted “with concern that progress on the key issues of interest to the union is still not sufficient for an agreement to be reached”.
Meanwhile, leaders underlined that they remained united behind Barnier’s approach, with French President Emmanuel Macron stating that “under no condition can our fishermen be sacrificed during Brexit”.
Fisheries quotas, and specifically the level of access of EU fleets to UK waters, remain the main dividing line, while the two sides have also moved closer to an agreement on state aid, and on the so-called ‘level playing field’.
UK officials have hinted at their disappointment at the slow pace of progress in recent weeks as well as the low level of the potential trade agreement, which would be little more than a bare-bones tariff- and quota-free pact on trade in goods.
“For whatever reason, it is clear from the summit that after 45 years of membership, they (the EU) are not willing, unless there is some fundamental change in approach, to offer this country the same terms as Canada,” complained Johnson.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]