Brexit: Jeremy Hunt hints UK could accept Canada-style trade deal if EU rejects Chequers plan

Foreign secretary refuses to dismiss suggestion government could settle for less comprehensive agreement

Benjamin Kentish
Political Correspondent
Saturday 22 September 2018 10:26
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Jeremy Hunt hints UK could accept Canada-style trade deal if EU rejects Chequers Brexit plan

Jeremy Hunt has signalled that the UK could now accept a Canada-style free trade agreement from Brussels as it quits the EU.

The foreign secretary refused to rule out taking such a deal, which has been advocated by Theresa May’s rivals such as David Davis and Boris Johnson, but said the government preferred to try to make the prime minister’s Chequers proposals viable.

It comes after a major row with EU leaders over her proposals for Brexit, which have also been attacked by Tory MPs.

On Thursday, European Council president Donald Tusk said Ms May’s plan “will not work”, prompting the prime minister to deliver a stern Downing Street statement demanding the EU treat the UK “with respect”.

Mr Hunt insisted the government was still focused on winning support for the Chequers plan, but did not rule out a Canada-style deal if that fails.

“I am not dismissing anything,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today when asked about the potential for a Canada-type model.

But he added: “We have been very clear that we are prepared to negotiate on the Chequers proposal but we can’t talk to a void – we have to have a counter party that’s prepared to sit down and go through the details.

“We think these proposals are better than the Canada proposals because of the fact that they work better on the Northern Irish border. That’s the main reason we came up with them.”

The deal agreed between Canada and the EU covers free trade but is significantly less comprehensive than the arrangement Britain is seeking with the EU.

A Canada-style deal is favoured by some Brexiteers because it would not keep Britain so closely aligned with the EU.

Mr Hunt attacked European leaders for the “inherent unreasonableness” of their negotiating position, saying it was “unacceptable” and a “parody” of an institution that claimed to respect democracy.

But despite talks being deadlocked, he said he had received messages from two EU foreign ministers following the Salzburg summit earlier this week saying they believed a deal was still possible, and that Mr Tusk had expressed the same view.

He said: “What we need to be doing in a situation like this is bringing people together.

“This is a time for people in the EU to step back from the abyss, to sit down and to talk to us about how we can make these sensible, concrete proposals actually work.”

On Friday, Ms May warned EU leaders she would not accept any solution that would create a new customs border in the Irish Sea.

Theresa May on Brexit deal: 'no-one wants a good deal more than me'

She said the EU plan was “something I will never agree to” and something “no British prime minister would ever agree to”.

Saying she had always treated the UK with respect, she said the “UK expects the same” and called on EU leaders to explain “what the real issues are and what their alternative is so that we can discuss them”.

She was speaking after Mr Tusk poked fun at the prime minister by tweeting a photo of him offering her cake, alongside the caption: “A piece of cake, perhaps? Sorry, no cherries.”

Mr Hunt said: “What Theresa May is saying is ‘Don’t mistake British politeness for weakness. If you put us in a difficult corner we will stand our ground.’ That is the kind of country we are.

“Insulting her on social media, getting to these standoffs where you are calling people liars and so on is not the way we are going to get a solution to this difficult situation.

“If we are going to work seriously towards a solution then we need to avoid revving up the situation, making it worse by appealing to audiences on social media.”

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