Johnson Warns EU Not to Expect Compromise Ahead of Trade Talks

Boris Johnson will tell the European Union he’s prepared to walk away from trade talks rather than compromise on what he regards as a core principle of Brexit, as the feeling grows on both sides that a breakthrough will prove impossible when negotiations resume in London this week.

The British prime minister will on Monday set the Oct. 15 European Council meeting as the deadline for a deal. And he’ll say the U.K. is prepared to end the Brexit transition period without one, if necessary, at year-end — a scenario he’ll describe as a “good outcome,” his office said in an emailed statement.

“There is still an agreement to be had,” Johnson will say, pledging that his government will work hard through September and urging the bloc to “rethink” its positions. “But we cannot and will not compromise on the fundamentals of what it means to be an independent country to get it.”

A European diplomat, who asked not to be named in line with policy, said informal consultations ahead of this week’s talks yielded no shift in positions. A second diplomat said the view in Brussels is that there’s a fight between Brexit realists and Brexit ideologues in the British government, and it’s uncertain which side will prevail.

Meanwhile a spokesperson confirmed the government is “considering fall-back options” in case it can’t resolve “outstanding issues” in the Brexit withdrawal agreement related to Northern Ireland.

The Financial Timesreported that a planned internal market bill to ensure smooth trade between the four U.K. nations will override key parts of the withdrawal agreement on state aid and Northern Ireland customs — a move people familiar with the plans told the newspaper will undermine prospects of a trade deal.

The U.K. will revert to trading with its biggest market on terms set by the World Trade Organization if there’s no agreement in place by Dec. 31. That means the return of certain tariffs and quotas, as well as extra paperwork for businesses. Though the British government describes that as an “Australia-style” agreement, it’s an outcome feared by British businesses who warn of severe disruptions to vital just-in-time supply chains.

Lengthy Impasse

On Monday, Johnson will say that in the absence of a deal, the U.K. will be “ready to find sensible accommodations on practical issues,” including aviation, haulage, and scientific cooperation, according to his office.

The two sides have been at an impasse for months over state aid and fisheries. The EU is seeking to keep the access its fisherman currently have to U.K. waters to protect jobs and coastal communities, while Britain wants reduced access for EU boats and to make it conditional on regular negotiations.

On state aid, or so-called level playing field regulations, Johnson’s government wants the freedom to chart its own course, while the EU is demanding to know what the British government plans to ensure fair competition.

Negotiators have scheduled eight hours of talks on both issues this week, according to an agendapublished on Friday.

On Sunday, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab accused the bloc of trying to undermine the U.K.’s Brexit decision by keeping it bound to the rules of the EU’s single market.

‘Point of Principle’

“This week is an important moment for the EU to really effectively recognize that those two points of principles are not something we can just haggle away — they are the very reasons we are leaving the EU,” Raab told Sky News. He said the issue of state aid is a “point of principle” for the U.K. rather than an indication the government is preparing major interventions.

“I don’t think the EU should be worried about that,” he said.

There’s pessimism in Brussels about the prospects of a breakthrough, and for now, Brexit isn’t on the agenda of the Sept. 24 EU summit.

Michel Barnier, the bloc’s top negotiator, said last week he was “worried” and “disappointed” by the current state of the talks, saying Britain would need to shift its position to reach an agreement.

The EU also hit back at reports in the British media that Barnier is being sidelined in an attempt to push forward a trade agreement, calling them “unfounded rumors.”

“Whoever wants to engage with the EU on Brexit needs to engage with Michel Barnier,” Sebastian Fischer, a Brussels-based spokesman for the German government, whose country holds the EU presidency, said in a tweet over the weekend.

Whoever wants to engage with the EU on Brexit needs to engage with @MichelBarnier. He is the EU’s Brexit chief negotiator and enjoys the full trust, support and confidence of the EU27. He has a proven track record of leading successful #Brexit negotiations on behalf of the EU.3:30 PM · Sep 5, 2020 from Brussels, Belgium

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The two sides are even at loggerheads on how to negotiate, with the EU demanding progress on all issues and the U.K. seeking initial agreements on less contentious points to build momentum toward a final deal.

Serious

But ahead of the meetings, the U.K.’s chief negotiator, David Frost, warned that his side would “not blink,” and contrasted Johnson’s steadfast approach with that of his predecessor, Theresa May. British officials have also repeatedly complained about the EU’s position.

“A lot of what we are trying to do this year is to get them to realize that we mean what we say and they should take our position seriously,” Frost said in an interview with the Mail on Sunday.

The standoff comes amid warnings from British businesses, particularly the haulage industry, about the U.K.’s ability to mitigatedisruption at ports.

Raab told the BBC on Sunday that earlier planning for a no-deal Brexit and the measures put in place during the coronavirus pandemic have put the U.K. “in a much stronger place” to handle the risks. “But we’d much rather have a deal with the EU.”

— With assistance by Nikos Chrysoloras

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