The UK has rebuffed Brussels’ offer of intensified trade talks next week, telling the European Union’s chief negotiator there is “no basis for negotiations”.
The Prime Minister on Friday accused European leaders of having “abandoned the idea of a free trade deal” and told the country to “get ready” for a no-deal outcome in the negotiations after his October 15 deadline for reaching an agreement passed.
European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen had responded to his media statement by vowing that the EU would carry on negotiating, suggesting talks next week in London would go ahead as planned.
But Lord Frost, the UK’s chief negotiator, spoke with his counterpart Michel Barnier to tell him not to make the trip across the Channel next week.
The pair, however, pledged to speak “early next week” in an indication that hopes of talks continuing have not been entirely extinguished, despite Downing Street telling reporters the negotiations were now “over”.
A Number 10 spokesman said: “Lord Frost has spoken to Michel Barnier to update the EU on the Prime Minister’s statement.
“Lord Frost said that, as the PM had made clear, the European Council’s conclusions yesterday had left us without a basis to continue the trade talks without a fundamental change in the EU’s approach to these negotiations.
“There was accordingly no basis for negotiations in London as of Monday.
“He and Michel Barnier agreed to talk again early next week.”
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman, in a briefing on Friday, said there was “no point” in Mr Barnier travelling to London unless the 27 member states were willing to alter their position or wanted to discuss sector by sector arrangements to prepare for no deal.
“The trade talks are over. The EU have effectively ended them by saying that they do not want to change their negotiating position,” the spokesman said.
Mr Johnson had previously said that he would walk away from the negotiations if there was no agreement on a deal by the time of this week’s EU summit in Brussels.
In his broadcast statement, the Prime Minister said it was clear from the gathering in the Belgian capital the EU was not prepared to offer Britain the kind of Canada-style free trade agreement it was seeking.
He said businesses and individuals should now prepare to start trading with the EU on World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules like Australia when the current Brexit transition period ends at the end of the year.
The Prime Minister went on to make similar comments at a Number 10 press conference when asked to explain his stance.
“We’ve got to a stage, alas, where they don’t seem to want to progress a free trade deal,” the Conservative Party leader said.
“That was pretty clear from the conclusions of the summit. They don’t want to go any further.
“Unless that fundamentally changes, then we’re going to have to come out on Australian terms, but we’ll prosper mightily nonetheless.”
The Australia-style deal espoused by Mr Johnson would see tariffs slapped on many British goods and some quota restrictions introduced with its largest trading partner.
Industry has reacted with alarm at the suggestion, warning of the damage to an economy already stricken by coronavirus if there was no deal by the end of the year.
CBI director-general Dame Carolyn Fairbairn said they could not afford to give up on negotiations and called on both sides to exercise “tenacity, common sense and compromise”.
After years of negotiations & many hurdles crossed, it’s no time to give up. Neither side can afford to fall at the final fence. A deal would protect COVID-hit livelihoods. With tenacity & compromise, a deal is possible.
— Carolyn Fairbairn (@cbicarolyn) October 16, 2020
“Neither side can afford to fall at the final fence. A deal is the only outcome that protects Covid-hit livelihoods at a time when every job in every country counts,” she said.
Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders chief executive Mike Hawes warned it would have a “devastating impact” on the automotive sector, hitting jobs “in every region of Britain”.
There was also criticism from within the Union as Wales First Minister Mark Drakeford accused Mr Johnson of “gambling with British jobs and security” and called his position a “huge mistake”.
The hardening of Britain’s stance came after EU leaders agreed summit conclusions on Thursday calling on the UK to make “the necessary moves to make an agreement possible” without any suggestion of EU concessions.
The two sides have been at loggerheads for months over the issues of future fishing rights and state aid rules.
Speaking at the end of the summit in Brussels on Thursday, European Council president Charles Michel said the EU was ready to carry on with negotiations.
“We are ready to negotiate, we are ready to continue the negotiations and I hope it will be possible to make progress in the future,” he said.
“We are determined to reach a deal but not at any cost.”