Boris Johnson’s chief Brexit negotiator has said there needs to be “more realism” from Brussels about the UK’s “status as an independent country”.
David Frost has declared that this week is make-or-break for trade talks with the EU if the UK is to avoid leaving the transition period with no deal.
Lord Frost and the EU’s Michel Barnier are meeting for the eighth round of Brexit negotiations in London after the prime minister set a new deadline for a deal that is just five weeks away.
And Lord Frost insists that progress must be made in the talks this week if the UK and EU are to reach a deal by the PM’s deadline of 15 October, when Europe’s leaders meet at a major summit.
“Today, I will sit down with Michel Barnier and drive home our clear message that we must make progress this week if we are to reach an agreement in time,” he said.
“We have now been talking for six months and can no longer afford to go over well-trodden ground. We need to see more realism from the EU about our status as an independent country.
“As we have done from the beginning in public and in private, I will reinforce our simple, reasonable request for a free trade agreement based on those the EU has signed before with like-minded partners.
“Throughout, we have listened carefully to our EU counterparts, signalled flexibility where possible to move the talks forward, and tabled new proposals to make progress.
“But we have repeatedly made clear that key elements of our position derive from the fundamentals of being a sovereign state, and it’s time for the EU to fully recognise this reality.
“If they can’t do that in the very limited time we have left then we will be trading on terms like those the EU has with Australia, and we are ramping up our preparations for the end of the year.”
But despite his warning, Lord Frost insisted: “There is still time to reach a good agreement and I look forward to this week’s face-to-face negotiations where I hope progress can be made.”
Mr Johnson said this week that a no-deal departure from the EU would be a “good outcome” and Lord Frost said in an interview that Britain would not “blink” in this week’s talks.
But Mr Johnson’s political opponents and other European leaders are sceptical about the British government’s apparent threat to walk away and claim it is posturing in a bid to extract concessions from the EU.
“At this stage of negotiations you often see a certain level of sabre-rattling and a certain level of posturing, if you like,” said Ireland’s deputy leader Leo Varadkar. “So our response to this is going to be measured.”
The PM is also being accused of ripping up his own withdrawal agreement by publishing a bill in parliament which overrides the most contentious part of the agreement, the protocol designed to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland.
“We have a withdrawal agreement,” Mr Varadkar added. “It is an international treaty and international treaties must be honoured.”
At Westminster, Labour claims the fact that Mr Johnson is now planning to introduce legislation, the Internal Market Bill, affecting the withdrawal agreement suggests the deal he did was not as good as he claimed.
“He promised the British people he had an oven-ready deal,” shadow Northern Ireland secretary Louise Haigh told Sky News.
“He promised Northern Ireland businesses they could rip up paperwork and put it in the bin if they were asked to fill it in when trading between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
“None of that was going to be true and he knew that, based on the agreement in the protocol he negotiated with the EU last October.
“Either he didn’t know what he was agreeing to, or he has been misleading the public ever since.
“And it may be the case now that they’re covering their tracks and attempting to withdraw unilaterally from something they always knew they were going to have to implement.”
The pro-Remain former cabinet minister, David Gauke, told Sky News the PM is trying to reconcile the deal he sold to the public with the one he actually signed.
“The government is unilaterally attempting to rewrite the contents of the treaty to make it consistent with what the prime minister said,” said Mr Gauke.
“But that’s not consistent with what the treaty that was agreed by both parties last year and implemented by parliament earlier this year actually means.
“And if that is what happens than that is clearly going to damage trust between the EU and UK. The EU are likely to see this as an act of bad faith on the part of the UK, and frankly with some justification.”
But the Conservatives’ allies at Westminster, the Democratic Unionist Party, gave the prime minister’s proposals for new legislation a cautious welcome.
:: Listen to Sophy Ridge on Sunday on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Spreaker
“The uncertainty around the future trading relationship is a matter the government must urgently address,” the DUP said in a statement.
“Great Britain is our main market. It accounts for 52.7% of Northern Ireland external sales and 65% of Northern Ireland purchases are from Great Britain.
“We note the speculation that the government will pursue fall-back measures under the Internal Market Bill to protect Northern Ireland’s interests should a deal not be agreed that mitigates the threat of the NI Protocol.
“We will want to see the finer details and clauses relating to this and will study them carefully.
“We welcome them in broad terms in so far as they go, but the government must continue to work to remove any disadvantages to Northern Ireland brought about by its signing up to the Protocol.”