Boris Johnson has warned that unless there is a “fundamental change of approach” by the EU then Britain will exit its post-Brexit transition period at the end of the year without a trade deal, as he sought to increase pressure on EU leaders to give ground.
Mr Johnson claimed that a European Council meeting in Brussels had left him convinced the EU was not ready to offer the UK a “Canada-style” trade agreement, a reference to a preferential relationship that would minimise tariffs and smooth commercial ties. EU leaders including Germany’s Angela Merkel responded by stressing that a deal was still possible if both sides moved.
In a dramatic televised clip, the UK’s prime minister said Britain would approach the prospect of leaving the EU single market on January 1 without a trade deal with “high hearts”.
He did not explicitly say he was walking away from talks, but said to the EU: “Only come to us if there is some fundamental change of approach.” He added that, in those circumstances, “of course we would be ready to listen”.
Downing Street later hardened its language on the impasse, with a spokesman for Mr Johnson saying the EU had in effect ended the trade talks.
Mr Johnson’s televised intervention will be seen as an attempt to force a crisis in the negotiations with the EU, which remain deadlocked on the issue of EU access to UK fishing waters and Britain’s subsidy regime.
The immediate response from Brussels was to confirm that its negotiating team would travel to London “as planned” next week for talks, something already announced on Thursday by EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier.
Asked about Mr Barnier’s declared intention to come to London next week for more discussions, Mr Johnson’s spokesman said: “There’s not any point in Michel Barnier coming to London next week if he’s not prepared to discuss all of the issues on the basis of a legal text in an accelerated way without the UK being required to make all the moves.”
However, EU leaders at their summit meeting underlined their desire for talks to continue but warned that the bloc would not do a deal at any price.
Speaking after the EU summit meeting on Friday, French president Emmanuel Macron said: “The sovereign leaders of 27 member states that made the decision to stay in the EU do not have the job of making the British prime minister happy.”
He said the EU was conscious that a deal “will require efforts, particularly from the UK”, adding that “it is the UK a lot more than us that needs an agreement”.
But at the same time, France’s leader went further than ever before in outlining the terms of a possible compromise on the vexed issue of fishing rights, acknowledging that access to British waters would not be “as ambitious” as now.
The pound fell 0.3 per cent against the euro after Mr Johnson’s statement at midday, in which he told businesses and travellers to prepare for a new relationship with the EU from January 1 with no trade deal in place — meaning tariffs and quotas on trade in goods and substantial regulatory hurdles to trade in services.
EU officials noted that, despite Mr Johnson’s threat to walk away, much of the future-relationship deal was politically settled, with the negotiations now focused on a core set of sticking points: fishing rights in British waters, level playing field conditions for business, and dispute-settlement arrangements for the trade deal.
“We must be prepared to make compromises,” said Ms Merkel. “If we want an agreement, both sides must move towards each other, each side has his principles, but there is still room for compromise.”
But in a bleak assessment of the state of negotiations, Mr Johnson said: “They want the continued ability to control our legislative freedoms and fisheries in a way that is completely unacceptable for an independent country.”
He said the EU summit in Brussels appeared to “completely rule out a Canada-style deal” and that he had concluded that the country should prepare for January 1 on principles “more like Australia’s”. Australia has no trade deal with the EU but is trying to negotiate one.
“With high hearts and complete confidence we will prepare to embrace the alternative and we will prosper mightily,” Mr Johnson added. Britain would try to negotiate side deals to minimise disruption, he said.