Boris Johnson has warned EU leaders they will have to change tack if there is to be a post-Brexit trade deal, with just two months to go until both sides take stock of whether an agreement is possible.
Downing Street said Mr Johnson believed that while talks might continue, it was unlikely both sides could come to an agreement that did not recognise the UK’s status as “an independent state”.
“Clearly there will need to be some political movement on the EU side,” a Downing Street official said on Monday, suggesting that heads of government would have to intervene to revise the bloc’s negotiating position.
Meanwhile Michael Gove, Cabinet Office minister, told MPs that the business turmoil caused by coronavirus would not cause the government to seek an extension to Britain’s post-Brexit transition period, which ends on December 31.
“Coronavirus in some respects should concentrate the minds of EU negotiators in underlining the importance of coming to a conclusion,” Mr Gove told MPs on the House of Commons committee looking at trade talks. Experience from years of Brexit talks with Brussels showed that “whenever a deadline was extended, the light at the end of the tunnel was replaced by more tunnel”, he said.
Mr Gove said that a prolongation would require Britain to make a financial contribution to the EU budget that “could be spent on our NHS”. The UK would also have to apply any new European laws “over which we would have no say”, he said.
Britain is adamant that Brussels must scrap core planks of its negotiating stance if a deal is going to be possible, including demands that the UK guarantee long-term access to its fishing waters and sign up to a regulatory “level playing field.” The UK is also opposed to the EU’s desire to place the whole relationship under a single treaty, complete with a governance system.
Britain insists that its vision of a relationship based around a standalone trade deal is grounded in international precedents; the EU argues that the UK wants unprecedented market access for a country outside the single market, and that the EU’s proposals reflect the unique circumstances of Brexit.
Mr Johnson, who returned to work on Monday after a serious bout of coronavirus, is expected to take a bigger personal role in the talks as they reach a crucial phase. Two further negotiating rounds are planned before an EU-UK stocktaking summit in June.
Access to Britain’s fishing waters has become a particular flashpoint. The EU wants the UK to agree to a treaty that preserves at least a large part of the bloc’s existing fishing rights; Britain insists that it will not go beyond the kind of agreement the EU has with Norway, which leaves access to waters up to annual negotiation.
“Their behaviour suggests that they regard the UK not as a fully sovereign independent state,” Mr Gove said.
He said the EU’s approach to the future-relationship talks was to treat Britain similarly to a country seeking closer relations with the bloc, “like the Ukraine”.
Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, warned on Friday that the bloc would never sign a trade deal without guarantees on fish.
Mr Gove addressed the EU’s insistence that Britain commit to continue upholding the European Convention on Human Rights as a precondition for a future security partnership, confirming that the government would not leave the international accord. He said the “challenge” in the talks arose from EU demands that UK “adherence to the ECHR be through a particular set of processes and instruments”.
British officials admit that the talks need new “political impetus” to break the logjam before the deadline for seeking an extension in June.
But the prime minister’s spokesman insisted that Mr Johnson would not ask for more time to do a deal: “Nobody should be in any doubt the transition period will end on December 31.”