The risk of a no-deal Brexit has increased – as the UK declared talks on a future trade deal were “over.”
The move came after EU leaders concluded a two-day summit, chaired by European Council President Charles Michel, which did a “Brexit stocktake” by calling on London “to make the necessary moves to make an agreement possible”. Time is running out for a new free-trade deal to replace interim tariff-free trade arrangements which end on December 31.
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson issued a video message in response to the EU leaders’ call. He said the UK must prepare for a no-deal conclusion to Brexit which he insisted would be beneficial for the country. “It’s pretty clear our friends don’t want to negotiate,” Mr Johnson said. But he pointedly did not rule out further talks, provided the EU was prepared for “a fundamental change of approach”.
EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said talks would continue and its chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, would travel to London next week to meet his UK counterpart, David Frost. But shortly after this, the UK attitude seemed to harden further with a message from Mr Johnson’s spokesman.
“The trade talks are over. The EU have effectively ended them yesterday,” the spokesman said, referring to EU calls for a change in the UK approach to negotiations.
Later, Mr Frost phoned Mr Barnier and withdrew the offer of hosting talks in London next week. But it is understood contact between the negotiating teams will continue.
Taoiseach Micheál Martin still held out hope of a trade deal, arguing it was still in the UK’s best interest. “From an objective point of view, I would say that anyone looking in would say there is the basis for a deal,” the Taoiseach said.
Mr Martin said Britain had an enormous amount to gain from continued access to the EU single market of 450 million people. He said talks could continue and intensify.
“We all owe it to the citizens we represent to do everything we can to get a sensible trade deal,” the Taoiseach said.
EU leaders shrugged off Mr Johnson’s threat, and seemed poised to continue talking. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the EU still wants a deal and are willing to keep negotiating with London, but she echoed other leaders’ warnings that an agreement cannot come at any price.
The talks have been frustrated by disagreement on fisheries, and UK refusal to give assurances on environmental, labour, and state aid standards, as well as a mechanism to resolve potential future disputes.
Brussels fears London will undercut it in business by loosening often-costly rules on environmental protection or labour rights commonly known as “dumping”. London rejects this, but argues that the whole point of leaving the EU was not to be bound by its regulatory regime.
The EU also wants a trade deal to be linked to continued fishing access to UK waters. But Mr Johnson wants British waters to be reserved chiefly for domestic exploitation.
The Taoiseach again said that the interests of Irish coastal communities largely dependent on fishing will be protected. Eight member states, led by France, are battling on this issue and French President Emmanuel Macron struck a particularly strident tone on this and other issues.
Last month, Mr Johnson said this mid-October EU summit in Brussels was the last real opportunity to clinch a deal.
“I concluded that we should get ready for January 1 with arrangements that are more like Australia’s, based on simple principles of global free trade,” he said yesterday. This was a reference to minimalist World Trade Organization rules that govern EU-Australian trade.
Effectively, both sides are now blaming one another for a lack of progress and calling for a change of attitude.
The UK PM’s spokesman, James Slack, left his boss some wriggle room by suggesting that a change of approach by Brussels could sustain continued talks.
“There is only any point in Michel Barnier coming to London next week if he is prepared to discuss all the issues on the basis of legal texts in an accelerated way without the UK being required to make all of the moves,” Mr Slack said.
Publicly, Britain has so far cited its negotiating mandate largely on a free trade deal the EU struck with Canada in 2017. This gives extensive tariff and quota free access, but does not eliminate all trade barriers.
But Brussels diplomats say the potential deal for the UK could go much further than the Canada agreement. The EU negotiator, Mr Barnier, said the size of the UK’s economy and the country’s proximity to EU markets makes a deal on keeping environmental, labour, and state aid standards, vital.
Mr Johnson returned to this point again yesterday.
“To judge by the latest EU summit in Brussels that won’t work for our EU partners. They want the continued ability to control our legislative freedom, our fisheries, in a way that is completely unacceptable to an independent country,” he said.