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 document revived fears of a no-deal crash-out, with tariffs and other trade barriers on imports and exports and likely disruption to ports and airports from 1 January next year.
The negotiating mandate set the scene for a Brexit bust-up when talks on the future UK-EU relationship begin in Brussels on Monday, with Britain insistent it will not sign up to European rules and regulations.
Labour accused Mr Johnson of showing a “cavalier disregard” for people’s livelihoods, while the TUC said he was “recklessly endangering working people’s jobs and rights”.
And the pound slumped against a range of currencies as markets responded negatively to the prospect of a no-deal outcome.
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 set 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 rejected the EU’s insistence that an agreement along the lines of Canada’s deal – which provides for zero tariffs on many goods – is not on offer to the UK because of its geographical and economic closeness.
But the mandate also insisted that Mr Johnson is ready to leave on World Trade Organisation terms, effectively paving the way for a no-deal Brexit.
Preparations for withdrawal with no deal, including new infrastructure at ports and the recruitment of more border staff, will not wait until talks collapse but begin straight away.
The 30-page mandate stated that the UK government will not accept any role for the European Court of Justice in dispute resolution mechanisms following Brexit.
Mr Johnson’s government “hopes” the broad outlines of an FTA can be ready for finalisation by September, it said.
But it added: “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.
In the House of Commons, Labour’s Brexit spokesperson Paul Blomfield accused Mr Johnson of “taking serious risks with the economy, jobs and people’s livelihoods” and displaying “a cavalier disregard” for the consequences of failure to get a deal.
But cabinet minister Michael Gove, who unveiled the mandate in parliament, said: “We are confident that the negotiations will lead to outcomes which work for both the UK and the EU. This House, our European partners and above all the British public should be in no doubt – at the end of the transition period on 31 December, the United Kingdom will fully recover its economic and political independence.
“We want the best possible trading relationship with the EU, but in pursuit of a deal we will not trade away our sovereignty.”
Mr Gove said the prime minister had made his vision on the UK’s future relationship with the EU ”crystal clear” during the campaign for December’s general election.
And he claimed that the result of the election – when a majority of voters backed parties offering a second Brexit referendum – had “comprehensively confirmed public support for our direction of travel”.
Mr Gove said the UK wanted “a relationship based on friendly co-operation between sovereign equals”, adding: “We respect the EU’s sovereignty, autonomy and distinctive legal order, and we expect them to respect ours.
“We will not accept nor agree to any obligations where our laws are aligned to the EU or the EU’s institutions, including the Court of Justice.”
TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said: “The government is recklessly endangering working people’s jobs and rights.
“By abandoning the level playing field, ministers are deliberately undermining important protections, like the right to paid holidays and safe limits on working hours. And by making it harder to trade with the EU, they’re putting jobs and living standards on the line.
”A good deal with the EU should be this government’s priority. But instead, Boris Johnson is gambling with people’s livelihoods by again threatening a disastrous no deal.”
And Liberal Democrat acting leader Ed Davey said: “Once again we have seen the prime minister is more interested in brinkmanship and pleasing the Tory backbenches than working with the EU to build a sustainable trading partnership.
“Finalising an agreement by 2021 is already unlikely. Narrowing the timeframe even more is nothing short of reckless. The Liberal Democrats will oppose the government’s negotiating stance and fight for the closest possible trading partnership with Europe.”
The chair of the European Movement, former Conservative cabinet minister Stephen Dorrell, said: “This is the first time since the end of the Second World War that the government has outlined a mandate for negotiations that will not tear down borders to trade but erect them. Despite claiming to be pro-trade and pro-enterprise, this government is actively taking steps to isolate ourselves from our closest neighbours.
“Boris Johnson and his government must not be permitted to use Brexit as an opportunity to do away with regulations protecting workers, the environment and standards.”
The UK mandate 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.
The document revealed that the government is not seeking continued participation in the European Arrest Warrant scheme, instead calling for agreement on “fast-track extradition arrangements” similar to those between the EU and Norway and Iceland.
There was alarm over indications that ministers are backing away from continued involvement in the Erasmus exchange scheme for university students.
The mandate said the government will “consider options for participation in elements of Erasmus+ on a time-limited basis, provided the terms are in the UK’s interests”.
Liberal Democrat education spokesperson Layla Moran described it as “a disaster for young people”.
“Boris Johnson told us that there is ‘no threat to the Erasmus scheme’ but now he’s revealed that the UK has one foot out of the door,” said Ms Moran.
“Instead of ensuring that our universities remain open, international and outward-looking, these proposals show that Brexit means going it alone. Instead, the UK will presumably waste millions on a replacement scheme that won’t match Erasmus’s reputation or size.”
Universities UK said the benefits of Erasmus were “broad and clear” and called for “a stronger commitment to the programme as negotiations unfold”.
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