LONDON — British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Friday that the U.K. must prepare for a no-deal break with the European Union unless there is a “fundamental” change of position from the bloc, as the two sides swapped blame for failing to strike a deal with just weeks until the end-of-year deadline.
Johnson accused the EU of refusing to give Britain a trade deal like the one it has with Canada, which the U.K. is seeking. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen responded that the EU still wants a deal, “but not at any price.”
EU leaders meeting in Brussels said that the U.K. needs to shift its position to make an agreement possible.
Even as they sniped, the two sides refused to shut the door on talks. Von der Leyen said that “as planned, our negotiation team will go to London next week to intensify these negotiations.”
The U.K. had threatened to walk away from negotiations if a deal was not struck by the EU summit that ends Friday.
Johnson didn’t go that far, but ramped up the tension, saying the EU seemed to have given up on a deal. He said Britain would listen if there was “a fundamental change of approach” from Brussels.
“As far as I can see they have abandoned the idea of a free trade deal. … Unless there is a fundamental change of approach we are going to go for the Australia solution,” he said in London.
Australia has no comprehensive trade deal with the EU. Johnson’s Conservative government insists Britain can still thrive under those conditions, which would mean tariffs and other barriers between the U.K. and the EU, its biggest trading partner. But many economists say it would be devastating for many British businesses, which are already struggling with a huge economic hit from the coronavirus pandemic.
Britain officially left the EU on Jan. 31 but remains part of its economic structures until Dec. 31. The two sides have been trying to strike a deal on trade and other relations before then, and say in practice it must be agreed this month if it is to be ratified by year’s end.
Despite Johnson’s intransigent tone, U.K. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said Friday that gaps between the two sides were narrow.
“There is a deal to be done but there needs to be flexibility on both sides,” he told the BBC. “It feels a little bit lacking from the European Union.”
Raab said differences remained on only two issues: EU boats’ access to U.K. fishing waters, and “level playing field” rules to ensure fair economic competition between Britain and the bloc.
“The issues are really narrow now,” Raab said.
Months of talks have ground to a halt on the issues of fishing — highly symbolic for maritime nations on both sides — and rules to ensure common regulatory standards and fair competition. The EU fears the U.K. will gain an unfair advantage by slashing food, workplace and environmental standards and pumping state money into businesses once it is free of the bloc’s rules.
Britain accuses the bloc of seeking to impose demands that it has not placed on other countries it has free trade deals with, such as Canada.
“They want the continued ability to control our legislative freedom, our fisheries, in a way that is obviously unacceptable to an independent country,” Johnson said.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the veteran diplomat, sought to soothe tempers, saying that “we asked Britain to be willing to compromise. This of course means that we too have to make compromises.”
Chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier said late Thursday that his team would be London-bound for more talks next week and planned to host negotiations in Brussels the week after that. Britain has not commented on that timetable.
Trust between the two sides, already frayed by years of Brexit acrimony, took a nosedive last month when Johnson introduced legislation that breaches parts of the withdrawal agreement he himself signed with the EU only last year.
The European Parliament, which must approve any deal, has vowed not to approve any trade deal if the U.K. government doesn’t withdraw this legislation. Britain says the bill, which has yet to become law, is needed as an insurance policy in case the EU behaves unreasonably after Brexit.