Boris Johnson has hit back at claims by the European Union that British negotiators are deliberately planning to scupper the post-Brexit trade talks with the bloc.
The row erupted after European trade commissioner Phil Hogan said the Government would blame the coronavirus pandemic for any disruption caused by not reaching a free trade agreement by the end of the year. The Irishman suggested Boris Johnson’s army of negotiators could be approaching the talks with a plan to deliberately leave the transition period without a deal.
“Despite the urgency and enormity of the negotiating challenge, I am afraid we are only making very slow progress in the Brexit negotiations.
“There is no real sign that our British friends are approaching the negotiations with a plan to succeed. I hope I am wrong, but I don’t think so,” said Mr Hogan.
“I think that the United Kingdom politicians and government have certainly decided that COVID is going to be blamed for all the fallout from Brexit and my perception of it is they don’t want to drag the negotiations out into 2021 because they can effectively blame COVID for everything.”
No10 rejected the suggestions of sabotage, insisting David Frost, the Prime Minister’s chief negotiator, is looking forward to a “constructive” round of negotiations next week with Brussels.
The Prime Minister’s spokesman said: “I don’t accept that at all. We look forward to negotiating constructively in the next round.
“We are ready to keep talking to the EU, but that does not make it more likely we will agree to the EU’s proposals, as we are an independent state.”
UK negotiators have argued the extending the transition period would be a pointless delay.
They have argued the December 31 deadline is helping focus minds on both sides.
Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, has briefed European capitals he believes his British counterparts are running down the clock to ramp up “time pressure” on the bloc.
A diplomatic memo from the meeting said: “Barnier raised concern about the UK’s reticence to engage in areas of importance to the EU such as a level playing field, horizontal governance and fisheries.”
The Frenchman also voiced concern Britain doesn’t have sufficient “bandwidth” to cope with the coronavirus crisis and strike a trade deal before the end of the year.
It is understood that the bloc believes the Government’s refusal to present a detailed timetable for plans to carry out customs checks between Great Britain and Northern Ireland has triggered a crisis in trust.
An EU diplomat said: “There was shared concern that Britain continues to stall negotiations and wants to walk back on commitments arising from the Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration.
“We also question whether the UK has enough bandwidth to deal adequately with Brexit-related issues right now.”
Michael Gove this week hit back at the suggestions that Britain was preparing to row back on its commitments to the Northern Ireland Protocol.
On Tuesday the Cabinet Office minister said: “The proof of the pudding is in the talking between the UK and the EU about how we make sure that the protocol can be implemented.
“The Prime Minister’s point is a powerful one, ultimately the Protocol isn’t designed to undermine the sovereignty of the UK over Northern Ireland.
“We remain one United Kingdom and the administration of the Protocol will be a matter for the UK.”