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Brexit: Boris Johnson backtracks on claim UK could escape punishing tariffs if it crashes out of EU

'What you can’t do is unilaterally use a Gatt 24 solution', frontrunner admits - a week after proposing it

Rob Merrick
Deputy Political Editor
Tuesday 25 June 2019 12:41 BST
Boris Johnson acknowledges Bank of England governor was 'right' to criticise plan to use Gatt 24 trade law to avoid border duties

Boris Johnson has backtracked on his much-ridiculed plan for avoiding punishing tariffs after a no-deal Brexit, admitting he would be unable to do it “unilaterally”.

In a difficult interview, the frontrunner for No 10 acknowledged the Bank of England governor was “right” to criticise his plan to use a trade law known as “Gatt 24” to avoid border duties.

“Where Mark [Carney] is right is in saying that implies mutuality – that has to be an agreement on both sides,” Mr Johnson agreed.

He added: “What you can’t do is unilaterally use a Gatt 24 solution, but what you could do is agree with our EU friends and partners is to go forwards together on that basis.”

In last week’s TV debate, when he floated the plan as the solution to avoiding Irish border checks after a crash-out Brexit, Mr Johnson made no mention of requiring Brussels’ agreement.

It prompted fierce criticism from Mr Carney, who pointed out Gatt 24 could only be invoked if there was an outline trade agreement in place – and the central point of a no-deal Brexit was the absence of a deal.

“We should be clear that not having an agreement with the European Union would mean that there are tariffs, automatically – because the Europeans have to apply the same rules to us as they apply to everyone else,” he warned.

The answer suggested such an agreement would not be possible under World Trade Organisation rules, regardless of whether the EU co-operated.

However, Mr Johnson, speaking on LBC radio, being “more positive” and an appeal to the EU to recognise its own self-interest could succeed.

“We haven’t had an interruption to trade between the UK and the continent for years and years,” he argued.

“It would be very bizarre if the EU should decide on their own – we wouldn’t put up tariffs – to impose tariffs on goods coming from the UK.”

Arguing it would be a return to terms-of-trade not seen since “Napoleon’s continental system”, Mr Johnson added: “It would not be in the interests of their businesses, let alone their consumers

“Let’s be more positive about this. It is time this country stopped being so down about its ability to get this thing done.”

Last week, Mr Johnson was challenged by Rory Stewart on the import taxes – and therefore border controls – that would be required on agricultural goods crossing to and from the Republic.

He replied: “There will be no tariffs, there will be no quotas, because what we want to do is get a standstill in our current arrangements under Gatt 24 – or whatever it happens to be – until such time that we have negotiated an FTA [Free Trade Agreement].”

The government has already accepted there would be some tariffs, after a no-deal Brexit, on beef, lamb, pork and poultry some dairy products, finished vehicles and ceramics.

Furthermore, even the absence of tariffs would not avoid the need for controls at the Irish border, because physical checks on standards of goods would be required if the UK leaves the EU single market.

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