The Scotsman

How John­son’s hopes of a free-trade deal with Brus­sels have waned

- Brexit · European Politics · UK News · Politics · British Politics · Boris Johnson · Conservative Party (UK) · European Union · United Kingdom · Australia · Canada · London

On the elec­tion cam­paign trail last year, Boris John­son was clear – put the Con­ser­va­tives back in power and they could get a “fan­tas­tic new free-trade agree­ment” with Brus­sels.

Not only that, the com­plex ne­go­ti­a­tions could be done and dusted within 12 months – mean­ing there was “ab­so­lutely no need” for any ex­ten­sion to the Brexit tran­si­tion pe­riod which comes to an end at the end of this year.

The Con­ser­va­tive elec­tion man­i­festo spelt it out: “We will ne­go­ti­ate a trade agree­ment next year ....and we will not ex­tend the im­ple­men­ta­tion pe­riod be­yond De­cem­ber 2020.” Nine months on from Mr John­son’s tri­umphant re­turn to No 10, with the talks seem­ingly dead­locked, the mood mu­sic has changed.

The sunny op­ti­mism of last win­ter has given way to a stark warn­ing from the Prime Min­is­ter that un­less a deal can be done within the next five weeks, it would be bet­ter for both sides to walk away.

In his lat­est state­ment, he said that if there was no agree­ment by the time of the next EU sum­mit on Oc­to­ber 15, then it would sim­ply be too late for it to come into force be­fore the end of the year.

Mr John­son in­sisted that, fol­low­ing the UK’S de­par­ture from the EU in Jan­uary, it would still rep­re­sent a “good out­come” and that the coun­try would “pros­per might­ily” trad­ing on terms en­joyed by coun­tries such as Aus­tralia.

How­ever, for many in in­dus­try – al­ready rav­aged by the ef­fects of the coron­avirus pan­demic – the prospect of a fi­nal no-deal break with Bri­tain’s big­gest trad­ing part­ner is alarm­ing.

In Brus­sels, Mr John­son’s aim of get­ting a deal within the year was al­ways seen as an am­bi­tious – if not a com­pletely im­prob­a­ble – one.

The EU’S deal with Canada – which the Prime Min­is­ter wants to be a tem­plate for an EU-UK agree­ment – took five years to ne­go­ti­ate and a fur­ther three to im­ple­ment, lead­ing some to ques­tion whether he re­ally wanted a deal at all.

For some, his lat­est in­ter­ven­tion now smacks of sabre-rat­tling ahead of the lat­est round of talks – due to re­sume in Lon­don to­day – with the UK side at­tempt­ing to in­ject some much­needed mo­men­tum into the process.

Mr John­son in­sisted there was “still an agree­ment to be had” and that the Bri­tish would con­tinue to work hard through­out the com­ing month in or­der to try to achieve it.

But with the talks stalled on is­sues of state aid rules and fish­ing rights, he was also clear that he would hold the EU side – and its un­will­ing­ness to of­fer a Canada-style ar­range­ment – re­spon­si­ble if they failed.

The com­ing weeks should de­ter­mine whether the po­lit­i­cal will ex­ists in Lon­don and Brus­sels to fi­nally break the log­jam.

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