The trade body for the freight sector warns that the prime minister’s latest high-wire gambit ‘could jeopardise British business’s ability to keep Britain trading’.
Boris Johnson has been warned he risks “huge damage” to Britain’s national interests and its standing on the world stage as Brussels reacted with alarm to his threats to walk out of EU trade talks and tear up key parts of his Brexit withdrawal agreement.
European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen cautioned that implementation in full of the agreement which Mr Johnson signed up to last year was a legal obligation and a condition for any future trade deal with the EU, while anti-Brexit parties in Northern Ireland issued a joint statement warning that departing from the deal would undermine the peace process.
But Downing Street denied it was “tearing up” the withdrawal agreement and its protocol on Northern Ireland, insisting that the prime minister was committed to implementing both in their entirety, but was simply making “clarifications” in order to avoid confusion when the UK’s Brexit transition period ends on 31 December.
Business groups urged the prime minister to refocus his attentions on avoiding an “unwelcome and dangerous” disorderly exit from the EU. Logistics UK, the trade body for the freight sector, warned that his latest high-wire gambit “could jeopardise British business’s ability to keep Britain trading”.
On the eve of the latest and most crucial round of trade talks, opening in London on Tuesday, the UK sent a triple shock through the negotiation process, which has stalled over differences on fishing, state aid and the EU’s demands for a level playing field on standards.
Following an article by chief negotiator David Frost confirming the UK is ready to go for “no deal”, Mr Johnson declared a self-imposed deadline of 15 October to reach agreement or walk away from the table.
He claimed that leaving the EU without a trade deal – which he refers to as an “Australian trading arrangement” – would be “a good outcome for the UK”, despite Treasury analysis suggesting that it would knock up to 9 per cent off GDP.
Speaking ahead of Tuesday’s talks in London, Lord Frost said: “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. 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.”
And Downing Street confirmed that legislation to be tabled in Westminster on Wednesday will allow the government to override elements of last year’s withdrawal agreement, previously hailed by Mr Johnson as a “great deal” which was “oven-ready” for implementation in full.
The threats came as a new YouGov poll found that half of voters (50 per cent) believe leaving without a trade deal would be a bad outcome for the UK, against less than a quarter (24 per cent) who think it would be good.
In a carefully worded tweet, Ms Von der Leyen made clear that pressing ahead with Mr Johnson’s plans would risk collapsing the talks and put the UK’s international reputation for trustworthiness into question.
“I trust the British government to implement the withdrawal agreement, an obligation under international law and prerequisite for any future partnership,” she wrote, adding that the provisions on Northern Ireland were “essential to protect peace and stability on the island and integrity of the single market”.
The chair of the European parliament’s trade committee, Bernd Lange, said Mr Johnson’s move confirmed that his signature on last year’s political declaration with the EU “was not worth the paper it was written on” and rendered the trade talks a “farce”.
And the president of the Socialist group in the parliament, Iratxe Garcia Perez, said it “beggars belief” that the PM would go back on an agreement which he negotiated less than a year ago. “All is about trust and it is running out,” she said. “Agreements must be kept.”
Ireland’s foreign affairs minister, Simon Coveney, tweeted ominously: “This would be a very unwise way to proceed.”
Former chancellor Philip Hammond – thrown out of the Conservative parliamentary party by Mr Johnson for opposing a no-deal Brexit – said: “Leaving without a deal would not be a ‘good outcome for the UK’, nor would it be the outcome Boris and the Brexiteers promised.
“The UK is a rule-of-law state, and attempting to legislate domestically to override international law would be an incredibly dangerous step and bound to lead to conflict with the judiciary. It would also hugely damage our standing on the world stage.”
Mr Johnson’s spokesman insisted that the government had always made clear it would act to ensure unfettered access to the whole of the UK internal market for Northern Irish firms.
“We are taking limited and reasonable steps to clarify specific elements of the Northern Ireland protocol in domestic law to remove any ambiguity and to ensure the government is always able to deliver on its commitments to the people of Northern Ireland,” he said.
But the chair of the House of Commons Committee on the Future Relationship with the EU, Hilary Benn, told The Independent: “It is surprising that the government is apparently suggesting taking legislative powers to do the job of the joint committee.
“That obviously will create some concern and worry on the part of the EU because the government signed up of its own free will to this agreement. It’s a legally binding treaty and one would expect the government to honour its terms.”
And former Conservative cabinet minister Stephen Dorrell, now chair of the European Movement, said Mr Johnson was “putting our essential national interests at risk” with his “jaw-droppingly inept” posturing.
The prospect of changes to the terms of the Northern Ireland protocol sparked concern among business leaders in the region.
The Northern Ireland Business Brexit Working Group said that, while “not perfect”, the protocol as agreed last year would at least avert “some of the worst consequences of a chaotic non-negotiated outcome”.
“Business continues to ask for the certainty we need to prepare for the end of transition period,” said the group.
And Stephen Kelly, chief executive of Manufacturing NI, said that efforts to ensure unfettered access to the British market for Northern Irish firms need not put at risk the arrangements set out in the protocol.
Warning that businesses were being put in an “invidious position”, Mr Kelly said: “A disorderly end of this year is unwelcome and dangerous. For us it remains the case that a zero-tariff, zero-quota trade deal between the UK and the EU is in everyone's interests and all focus should be placed on achieving that aim.”
Four anti-Brexit parties in Northern Ireland – Sinn Fein, the SDLP, the Alliance and the Greens – issued a joint statement warning that departing from the terms of the protocol would be “a shocking act of bad faith that would critically undermine the Good Friday Agreement political framework and peace process”.
The shadow Northern Ireland secretary, Louise Haigh, said: “It beggars belief that the government is – yet again – playing a dangerous game in Northern Ireland and sacrificing our international standing at the altar of the prime minister’s incompetence.”
Trade body Logistics UK, whose members include companies shifting goods in and out of the UK by air, sea and land, said it was “concerned about reports that the UK government may jeopardise British business’s ability to keep Britain trading by negating key elements of the EU withdrawal agreement, which could put any further negotiations with the European Union at risk”.
Public policy manager Alex Veitch said: “With only 16 weeks remaining until the end of the transition period for the UK’s departure from the EU, this would have severe consequences for UK supply chains, leaving very limited time for the logistics industry to react and prepare to new trading conditions, especially as the industry is approaching its Christmas trading peak.
“Logistics UK, as the business group representing the sector which supports every area of the economy, is adamant that a free trade agreement should still be the priority for negotiators to ensure that the movement of goods to and from Europe can continue with as few limitations as possible, to keep Britain trading effectively with its closest and largest trading partners.”