Boris Johnson has been urged to extend the Brexit transition period in light of coronavirus – but one of his throwback columns suggests the Prime Minister will never do so.
Britain and the EU will restart talks this afternoon over their future relationship, with time running out to get an agreement after a six-week interruption caused by coronavirus. Officials will meet by video-conference for a full week of discussions – their first since the inaugural round in Brussels at the beginning of March. Shortly after that meeting, David Frost and Michel Barnier, the two sides’ chief negotiators, were forced into isolation after showing symptoms of the disease.
They resume talks as the UK’s opposition to extending the deadline hardens and officials say they have made little progress beyond identifying the major areas of disagreement.
After leaving the EU on January 31, the UK has until the end of the transition period on December 31 to settle its future relationship with the bloc in key areas such as trade, security and aviation co-operation.
Mr Barnier said after the first round of talks: “There are many serious divergences.
“An agreement is possible, even if difficult.”
Until the end of June, either side can ask for the transition period to be extended by up to two years, subject to the other’s consent.
The Scottish Government and UK businesses, fearful of the economic disruption of Brexit and the coronavirus combined, have called for extra time.
However, Downing Street remains adamant that it will not be seeking an extension.
The Prime Minister’s own words also suggest he will never back down on the December deadline.
In a 2017 column for the Daily Telegraph, the prominent Brexiteer said a no deal exit from the EU corresponded most closely to the British public’s idea of Brexit.
He said that Government warnings about shortages of food and medicines had been met with indifference from voters at the time.
Mr Johnson wrote: “What is going on?
“What is it that gives so many of the electorate the confidence to dismiss these prognostications? The most obvious answer, perhaps, is that this option is closest to what people actually voted for.
“When 17.4 million chose to leave the EU, they didn’t vote to stay locked in the customs union or the single market. There was no suggestion that we would pay £39billion for nothing, without even a sniff of a trade deal with Brussels.
“They didn’t vote to give the EU the perpetual power to keep part of the UK in thrall, with Northern Ireland becoming an effective hostage against any attempt by a future British government to do real free trade deals or diverge in a material way from the EU.
“They didn’t vote for anything like Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement.”
The now-Prime Minister noted: “They voted to come out. It is no deal, or WTO terms, that actually corresponds to their idea of coming out; and they view that option with a confidence that is now directly proportional to the growing strength of the Government’s warnings against it, because these doom-laden predictions are so hyperbolical as to suffer from the law of diminishing returns.
“Far from terrifying the public into accepting the Prime Minister’s deal, these threats are increasing a determination to reject it.
“Yes, people can well imagine that there will be bureaucratic and logistical challenges. Yes, they know that not everything will operate in exactly the same way as before.
“But if they are told that it is a choice between a temporary shortage of, say, cheese and onion crisps or a permanent subjection of this country to the EU, with no say in EU law-making, the public is now grimly determined to make do – hunkering down with prawn cocktail until such time as cheese and onion comes back on stream.”
In December, Mr Johnson became the most popular Prime Minister since Margaret Thatcher as Britons widely backed his pledge to “get Brexit done”.
If by June, Britain and the EU have not agreed on either a deal or an extension, the two sides will trade under World Trade Organisation (WTO) terms after December 31.
Mr Johnson’s 2017 column suggests he would be more than comfortable with this scenario, as he seeks other Free Trade Agreements around the world.
A source close to the Prime Minister’s adviser Dominic Cummings told The Times on Saturday that there is already a view in Number 10 that the UK is heading for “no deal”.
They said: “The two sides are a million miles away from each other.”