London: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is setting out a tough opening gambit Monday in negotiations with the European Union, saying the UK will walk away without a free-trade deal rather than agree to follow rules set by the 27-nation bloc.
Just 60 hours after Britain left the EU, the first country ever to do so, Johnson is digging in his heels about future relations. In a speech to business leaders and international diplomats in London, Johnson plans to say “we want a free trade agreement,” but not at any cost.
“The choice is emphatically not ‘deal or no-deal,’” Johnson plans to say, according to extracts released by his office.
“The question is whether we agree a trading relationship with the EU comparable to Canada’s – or more like Australia’s.” Australian-style trade would mean a panoply of new tariffs and other barriers between the UK and the EU, its near neighbour and biggest trading partner.
Across the Channel, chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier said the European Union will link any access to its market for British products directly to the access that EU boats will be given to UK waters.
Barnier underscored the difficulties of the trade negotiations with Britain when he highlighted the small but emblematic fisheries industry, which was a key issue in the UK’s protracted Brexit divorce deal.
Barnier told France Inter radio that “there will be no trade deal with the British if there is no reciprocal access deal for our fishermen.” Barnier said the two topics will be negotiated at the same time.
In their divorce agreement, Britain and the EU agreed to strike an “ambitious, broad, deep and flexible partnership,” including a free trade deal and agreements for security and other areas.
They gave themselves 11 months to do it. A post-Brexit “transition period,” in which relations stay essentially unchanged, runs until the end of 2020. For the rest of this year the UK will continue to follow EU rules, although it will no longer have a say in EU decision-making.
Britain says it wants a “Canada-style” free trade agreement with the EU covering both goods and services. But it is adamant it won’t agree to follow the EU’s entire rule book in return for unfettered trade, because it wants to be free to diverge in order to strike other new deals around the world.
The bloc insists there can be no trade deal unless Britain agrees to a “level playing field” and does not undercut EU regulations, especially in areas of environmental protections, worker rights and health and safety standards.
Johnson intends to double down on Britain’s tough stance. The Prime Minister chose to deliver his speech in the Painted Hall at the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich on the River Thames, a spot steeped in Britain’s past military glories.
The vast hall, covered in paintings glorifying British achievement, is where Adm. Horatio Nelson lay in state after his death at the Battle of Trafalgar against the navies of France and Spain in 1805.
“There is no need for a free trade agreement to involve accepting EU rules on competition policy, subsidies, social protection, the environment, or anything similar, any more than the EU should be obliged to accept UK Rules,” he will say.
“The UK will maintain the highest standards in these areas — better, in many respects, than those of the EU -– without the compulsion of a treaty. And it is vital to stress this now.” It’s a message aimed as much at a domestic audience as it is at the bloc, but EU leaders are unlikely to be impressed by what they’ll see as British intransigence and wishful thinking.