British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Friday that the UK must prepare for a no-deal break with the European Union unless there is a “fundamental” change of position from the bloc.
Johnson says the EU is refusing to give Britain a trade deal like the one it has with Canada, which the UK is seeking.
The UK Prime Minister was responding to EU leaders, who said at a Brussels summit that the UK needs to shift its positions to make an agreement possible.
The UK had threatened to walk away from the talks 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 UK 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.
EU Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen says the bloc still wants a Brexit trade deal “but not at any price.”
Britain officially left the EU on January 31 but remains part of its economic structures until December 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.
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 UK 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.
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 UK 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.