Boris Johnson is ready to walk away from Brexit trade talks and prepare the UK to leave the EU without a deal at the end of the year if sufficient progress is not made by June, according to a new document setting out the government’s stance for negotiations.
The negotiating mandate revived fears of a no-deal crash-out, with tariffs and other trade barriers on imports and exports and likely disruption to disruption to ports and airports from 1 January next year.
It set the scene for a Brexit bust-up when talks on the future UK/EU relationship open in Brussels on Monday, with Britain insistent it will not sign up to follow European rules and regulations.
Both sides are playing tough as talks commence, with EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier warning on Tuesday that Brussels will not accept a deal “at any price” if it suspects the UK of planning to cut corners on standards and subsidies to gain unfair commercial advantage.
London accuses Brussels of trying to inflate the scope of an agreement signed by the prime minister in October which committed both sides to maintaining a “level playing field” on environmental protections, workers’ rights, health and safety rules, state aid and taxation.
The new document sets out the UK’s ambition for a Canada-style comprehensive free trade agreement (FTA), which officials admit will mean extra red tape checks and controls for businesses and travellers at ports and airports.
And it rejects the EU’s insistence that an agreement along the lines of Canada’s CETA - which provides for zero tariffs on many goods - is not on offer to the UK, because of its geographical and economic closeness.
But it also insists that Mr Johnson is ready to leave on World Trade Organisation terms, effectively paving the way for a no-deal Brexit, with tariffs and other trade barriers on imports and exports and likely disruption to movements at ports and airports.
Preparations for withdrawal with no trade deal, including new infrastructure at ports and the recruitment of more border staff, will not wait until talks collapse but begin straight away.
The document states that Mr Johnson’s government “hopes” the broad outlines of an FTA can be ready for rapid finalisation by September.
But it adds: “If that does not seem to be the case at the June meeting, the Government will need to decide whether the UK’s attention should move away from negotiations and focus solely on continuing domestic preparations to exit the transition period in an orderly fashion.”
The UK will make its decision on the basis of whether good progress has been possible on the least controversial parts of negotiations by that point.
The document breaks from the EU’s approach by proposing a range of separate agreements on fisheries, law enforcement, judicial co-operation, transport and energy, rather than a single over-arching treaty.
For the first time, the government revealed it will conduct a consultation on its plans, inviting businesses, economists and other experts to offer their assessment of the likely impact on the UK economy.
But there was no commitment to publish the outcome. The last government assessment, released in 2018, suggested that leaving on WTO terms would hit the UK economy by as much as 9 per cent of GDP over the longer term.