Saturday

19th Jan 2019

EU will be blamed for no-deal Brexit, UK minister tells Berlin

  • Jeremy Hunt, two weeks into his new job as UK foreign secretary, warned Berlin that the UK public would blame Brussels if there was no Brexit deal (Photo: Number10gov.uk)

Britain's new foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt warned on Monday in Berlin that there is a clear risk of the UK leaving the EU next March without a deal and that the bloc will be blamed for it by stalling the talks - as the blame-game starts for a possible 'no-deal' scenario.

Speaking on his first trip after being appointed following the resignation of Boris Johnson earlier in July, Hunt told his German counterpart, Heiko Maas, that "there is now a very really threat of a Brexit no deal accident, and this is because many in the EU are thinking that they just have to wait long enough and Britain will blink".

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Hunt added that the EU needs to change its approach.

"Britain would find that [no-deal divorce] challenging, but in the end, we would find a way not just to survive but to thrive economically. But my real concern is that it would change British public attitudes to Europe for a generation," Hunt said.

Maas said the German government wants a deal, but it is the EU commission which leads negotiations. "We know that everyone is going to have to take steps toward the other to reach an agreement," he added.

Hunt's comments came after last week the EU has urged member states, business and citizens to make immediate preparations in case negotiators cannot agree on the withdrawal agreement.

The atmosphere was also stark when EU affairs ministers met last Friday to discuss the latest developments in Brexit talks.

While more than 80 percent of the text of the withdrawal agreement is agreed by UK and EU negotiators, solving the Irish border issue – keeping the EU's 'new' border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland invisible – remains the key stumbling bloc.

Both the EU and the UK agreed to avoid a hard border, and the EU has proposed a so-called backstop if all other arrangements fail, that would see Northern Ireland practically remain in the customs union and parts of the single market to maintain a frictionless border.

The UK last December, and then this March, made a political commitment to such an arrangement - while also ruling out putting a new UK customs border in the Irish Sea between Northern Ireland and mainland Britain, and keeping the entire UK in the customs union and the single market.

The chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier last week warned that the without a solution to the Irish border issue there could not be a withdrawal agreement.

He also hinted that the EU would be open to any solution that tackles the border issue, it does not have to be the backstop option. The UK has yet to come up with a specific proposal.

EU affairs ministers sounded gloomy after the meeting with the Polish minister Konrad Szymanski saying "the no deal scenario has never been as likely as it is now".

Negotiators hoped to hammer out the final text of the withdrawal agreement by October.

"Excellent discussion with German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas about the unintended geopolitical consequences of No Deal. Only person rejoicing would be [Russian president Vladimir] Putin…" Hunt tweeted after his meeting with his German counterpart.

So far MEPs and EU officials have been the ones pointing out that Putin benefits from tearing the EU apart and weakening Europe.

'Angry for decades'

As the possibility of a no-deal divorce increases, the political game of apportioning blame seems to be kicking off.

EU officials last week were very careful to avoid criticising the UK political leadership for over a week of infighting, U-turns, and uncertainties over Theresa May's Brexit white paper and subsequent amendments - to avoid being blamed for a no-deal.

"[The white paper] is the result of intense internal debate in the UK, we have all seen that the debate is not over yet," Barnier said last week, but went no further in commenting on the resignations of Hunt's predecessor, Boris Johnson, and the Brexit secretary David Davis.

"We wanted to avoid negative reactions," said one EU official with knowledge of the ongoing talks, adding that the chance for a no-deal is now 50 percent.

The official said it is disappointing to see the low level of public and political discourse about Brexit in the UK. The official added if there is no divorce deal, there will be no appetite for a free trade agreement either.

"We [the UK and the EU] will be angry with each other for decades," the EU official warned.

EU wants answers to de-dramatise Brexit talks

Further talks on the Irish border could continue next week as the EU is open to "any solution" that keeps the border invisible. EU negotiator Michel Barnier said key questions remain over the UK's white paper on a future partnership.

EU urges no-deal Brexit preparation

The EU Commission urged companies, citizens, and member states to prepare in case the UK next March crashes out of the EU without a deal - on the day the new UK Brexit minister arrived in Brussels.

UK's May moves towards 'soft' Brexit

In the wake of two cabinet resignations on the issue, UK government publishes its long-awaited vision for the future relationship with the EU, which would revolve around a free trade agreement on goods, but would end free movement.

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