Downing Street wants to agree a trade deal by December 31, 2020.
LONDON — Boris Johnson will only be able to strike a limited free-trade agreement with the EU if he sticks rigidly to his negotiation deadline, a former government trade official said Tuesday.
Raoul Ruparel, who advised former Prime Minister Theresa May on Europe, made the comments after Johnson vowed to make extending the 11-month negotiating window with Brussels illegal — setting a deadline of December 2020 for a post-Brexit trade deal.
“There is very little chance of getting a mixed agreement through in the time available,” Ruparel told an Institute for Government event in London, in reference to the kind of deal that mixes EU-wide elements with those affecting individual countries.
“So you are looking at a more narrow and shallower free-trade agreement using just the EU’s exclusive competence. So that limits the breadth and the depth of the deal to start with,” he said.
Ruparel said the U.K. might be forced to accept positions it does not agree with to avoid losing time — including on major points of disagreement such as fisheries and geographical indicators. The British government would have to decide whether the trade-offs in giving in on those issues would be worth the economic benefits of a deal as a whole, he added.
But he argued that a limited agreement with the EU would be comparable to the deals the bloc has struck with other nations, such as Canada.
“Context matters,” he told POLITICO after the event. “The type of free-trade agreement the U.K. could secure with the EU by the end of 2020 would look pretty narrow and shallow relative to our current relationship. But it would likely be in line with agreements the EU has struck with other countries such as Canada — a free-trade agreement which it describes as comprehensive.”
Johnson’s promise to ban any extension to the negotiations is being seen as a bid to pressure the EU into agreeing a new deal to avoid a cliff-edge exit in December 2020.
However, Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney on Tuesday described it as a “strange” move, according to the Irish Times.
Echoing Ruparel’s comments that a deal negotiated in 11 months would need to be limited in scope, Coveney said the U.K. had decided “to tie itself in terms of options.”
He added: “I just think if we’ve learned anything from the first round of Brexit negotiations … [it] is that we shouldn’t be closing off options.”
Sabine Weyand, the EU’s former deputy chief negotiator in the withdrawal negotiations who is now the lead official on trade for the European Commission, also said 11 months would not be enough time to strike a comprehensive deal.
She told a European Policy Centre think tank event in Brussels that without a transition extension the two sides will “have to look at those issues where failure to reach an agreement by [the end of] 2020 would lead to a cliff-edge situation.”
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said Tuesday she wanted to get negotiations on future trade up and running as soon as possible.
“We agreed to launch negotiations asap on future EU-U.K. partnership,” von der Leyen said on Twitter after a phone call with Johnson. “We will meet at the beginning of 2020. The U.K. will always be a friend, partner and ally.”
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