British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Monday outlined a hardline stance in post-Brexit negotiations with the EU, arguing Britain does not need to follow various EU rules to strike a trade deal.
In a keynote speech detailing his vision for the country’s future, days after its historic departure from the bloc following nearly half a century of membership, Johnson said he will seek a “pragmatic agreement”.
The British prime minister noted London had been told in earlier divorce talks with Brussels that it has the option of an ambitious trade deal, “which opens up markets and avoids the full panoply of EU regulation”.
“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,” Johnson said.
“The UK 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,” he added.
Johnson also insisted that if that type of agreement, similar to one the EU recently struck with Canada, is not possible then Britain would opt for a less comprehensive trade deal.
“The choice is emphatically not ‘deal or no-deal’,” he said.
But in a sign of the potentially fraught nature of the high-stakes talks, Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar urged London on Sunday to “tone down” what he called “nationalistic rhetoric”.
Britain should avoid repeating the past mistake of insisting on “rigid red lines” which “makes it hard to come to an agreement”, he said.
Late on Friday, Britain ended almost half a century of often reluctant membership of the European Union, an organisation set up to forge unity among nations after the horrors of World War II.
Upon leaving, the UK immediately entered an 11-month transition period agreed as part of the divorce, during which there will be little change in practical terms.
Britons will be able to work in the EU and trade freely – and vice versa – until December 31, although the UK will no longer be represented in the bloc’s institutions.
Legally however, Britain is out, and attention is now turning to what may prove to be gruelling talks with Brussels this year to hammer out all aspects of the future partnership.
Johnson, a polarising figure accused of glossing over the complexity of leaving the EU, is in a rush to seal an agreement.
He has vowed not to extend the transition phase, giving himself just 11 months to find consensus on everything from fishing to finance – not enough time, according to his critics.
EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier, who will set out the bloc’s negotiating positions also in a speech in Brussels on Monday, has warned that some items will have to be a priority.
He wants handshakes on fisheries, internal and external security and, above all, trade in goods.
France reminded Britain on Sunday that the UK exports most of its fish production to EU countries, highlighting a potential bargaining chip in coming post-Brexit talks about fishing rights that promise to be thorny.
But the EU said it fears being undercut on their own doorstep.