A hard Brexit could be made more likely because European Union leaders have failed to grasp the hardening of opinion in Britain, Latvia’s foreign minister has warned.
Edgars Rinkēvičs, who has served as the Baltic state’s chief diplomat for eight years, said a mutual gulf of understanding between London and Brussels means revising the Withdrawal Agreement before the October 31 deadline will be “extremely difficult.”
And he warned that Boris Johnson’s plan to use hard Brexit as a “credible threat” in negotiations was based on a false assumption about the European position and the speed with which the EU can move.
Speaking during a visit to London, Mr Rinkevics said: “I think that in the European Union we sometimes do not grasp that the UK, after three years of this very tortuous process, has a very hardened stance,” he told the Telegraph.
“But there is another dynamic that is not well understood here in London, which is very important for me as a representative of a small member state: it is also very important that the unity and solidarity of the European Union is not just words.
“When you have a situation where your key national interests are at stake, you count on the support of all the other 26 members. There are key national interests of Ireland at stake here - I don’t think anyone can deny that - and I believe that a very similar situation other member states would be counting on the support on all of them,” he said.
Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt, the candidates in the Conservative leadership race, have both said Britain must leave the European Union by October 31.
That will give the new prime minister just three months to negotiate a new Withdrawal Agreement after a winner is declared on July 23.
Both candidates have said the threat of a no-deal Brexit should be used to push the European Union to make concessions on controversial areas including the Irish backstop.
Mr Rinkēvičs said: “I do not think the [withdrawal agreement] can be revised in just a couple of weeks.”
Latvia is considered a close ally of Britain inside the European Union. They both take a hard line on Russian sanctions and increasing Nato defence spending, and Mr Rinkēvičs said Riga remains anxious for the EU to maintain the closest possible cooperation on security and law enforcement.
A crash-out Brexit on October 31 would jeopardise both European and British security if it also took Britain out of the European Court of Justice, undermining the work of European arrest warrants and cooperation via Europol and Eurojust, the pan-European policing and legal agencies.
Britain’s absence from the European Union may also raise questions about the endurance of the sanctions regime imposed against Russia following the annexation of Crime and war in eastern Ukraine in 2014.
Several countries including Hungary and Italy have publicly criticised the sanctions regime.
Latvia and neighbouring states were alarmed when the Council of Europe, a human rights body unrelated to the European Union, voted to restore Russia’s voting rights last month.
Mr Rinkevics said it was widely acknowledged that there will be a “change in dynamic” in the formation of EU foreign policy after Britain leaves, but said it was too early to predict how it would develop.
“There are some members states - I don’t want to single out any - that could raise [lifting sanctions on Russia],” said Mr Rinkēvičs.
“In that case I believe so the consequences are going to be really damaging for the credibility of the European Union,” he said. “If we give in, the implications for the security and stability in the neighbourhood will be quite grave.”