LONDON (AP) — British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is setting out a tough opening gambit Monday in negotiations with the European Union, saying the U.K. will walk away without a free-trade deal rather than agree to follow rules set by the 27-nation bloc.
Just 60 hours after Britain left the EU, the first country ever to do so, Johnson is digging in his heels. In a speech to business leaders and international diplomats in London, Johnson plans to say, “We want a free trade agreement,” but not at any cost.
“The choice is emphatically not ‘deal or no-deal,'” Johnson will say, according to excerpts released by his office. “The question is whether we agree to a trading relationship with the EU comparable to Canada’s, or more like Australia’s.”
Australian-style trade would mean a panoply of new tariffs and other barriers between the U.K. and the EU, its near neighbor and biggest trading partner.
Across the Channel, chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier said the European Union will link access to its market for British products directly to the access that EU fishing boats will be given to U.K. waters.
Barnier underscored the difficulties of the trade negotiations with Britain when he highlighted the small but emblematic fisheries industry, which was a key issue in the U.K.’s protracted Brexit divorce deal.
Barnier told France Inter radio: “There will be no trade deal with the British if there is no reciprocal access deal for our fishermen.” Barnier said the two topics will be negotiated at the same time.
In their divorce agreement, Britain and the EU agreed to strike an “ambitious, broad, deep and flexible partnership,” including a free trade deal and agreements for security and other areas. They gave themselves 11 months to do it. A post-Brexit transition period, in which relations stay essentially unchanged, runs until the end of 2020. For the rest of this year the U.K. will follow EU rules, though it will no longer have a say in EU decision-making.
Britain says it wants a “Canada-style” free trade agreement with the EU, covering goods and services. But it is adamant it won’t agree to follow the EU’s entire rule book in return for unfettered trade, because it wants to be free to diverge and strike other deals around the world.
The bloc insists there can be no trade deal unless Britain agrees to a “level playing field” and does not undercut EU regulations, especially in environmental protections, worker rights and health and safety standards.
Johnson intends to double down on Britain’s tough stance. He chose to deliver his speech in the Painted Hall at the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich on the River Thames, a spot steeped in Britain’s past military glories. The vast hall, covered in paintings glorifying British achievement, is where Adm. Horatio Nelson lay in state after his death at the Battle of Trafalgar against the navies of France and Spain in 1805.
“There is no need for a free trade agreement to involve accepting EU rules on competition policy, subsidies, social protection, the environment, or anything similar, any more than the EU should be obliged to accept U.K. rules,” Johnson will say. “The U.K. will maintain the highest standards in these areas — better, in many respects, than those of the EU -– without the compulsion of a treaty. And it is vital to stress this now.”
It’s a message aimed as much at a domestic audience as at the bloc, but EU leaders are unlikely to be impressed by what they see as British intransigence and wishful thinking.
Formal trade talks won’t start until March, after they have been approved by the remaining 27 EU nations.
EU leaders have repeatedly warned that the timetable is tight to strike any kind of deal. Free-trade agreements typically take years. The EU-Canada deal that the British government cites as a model took seven years to negotiate.
If there is no deal by the end of 2020 and the U.K. refuses to extend the negotiating period, Britain faces an abrupt, disruptive economic break from the bloc — with tariffs and other obstacles to trade imposed immediately between the U.K. and the EU.
That prospect alarms many businesses, especially in the auto industry, which depends on the easy flow of parts across borders.