Theresa May stuck to her guns by insisting the UK could secure a “comprehensive” trade deal with the EU alongside negotiations over the final Brexit bill, despite complaints from Brussels that such expectations are “completely unreal”.
European leaders agreed their formal guidelines for Brexit talks on Saturday, a day after the British prime minister met Jean-Claude Juncker, European Commission president, for a Downing Street dinner. At the dinner Mrs May called for a full UK-EU trade agreement within the two-year “divorce period” — alarming European leaders who had thought she was merely aiming towards a preliminary deal on the “future framework” by 2019.
This has sparked fears that the gulf between the opposing negotiating positions is wider than thought. After the dinner Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, said Britain still harboured “illusions” about what could be achieved through Brexit, while EU aides are reported to have said the prime minister was existing in a “parallel reality” and a “different galaxy”.
The UK prime minister brushed off these criticisms on Sunday, telling the BBC’s Andrew Marr show: “Look, I’m not in a different galaxy but I think what this shows, and what some of the other comments we’ve seen coming from European leaders shows, is that there are going to be times when these negotiations are going to be tough.”
When questioned on whether she would commit to paying a divorce bill before Britain leaves the bloc, she added: “The EU has also said that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.”
Asked in a separate interview with ITV about the timing of a trade deal, Mrs May said: “I think we should be looking to negotiate a comprehensive free-trade agreement within this period of time that we’ve got”.
To demonstrate the potential complexity of such a deal, Mr Juncker brought a hard copy of the full EU-Canada trade agreement — a weighty document running to around 2,255 pages — to his meeting in Downing Street. But Mrs May denied on Sunday that this was an appropriate comparison for the UK’s future negotiation.
“Really if you think about it, we’re in a different position from other countries,” she told ITV. “It’s not like we’re a third country who’s starting negotiations with them, we’ve actually been part of the European Union, we still are at the moment a member of the European Union. We’re operating on the same basis.
“So we’re starting from an entirely different point, so I think that actually us negotiating a comprehensive free-trade agreement will be easier, should be easier and that we can do that within the timeframe we’ve got.”
Responding to the criticisms from Brussels over the weekend, David Davis, the Brexit secretary, said the UK wanted the negotiations to be conducted “in the spirit of goodwill, sincere co-operation and with the aim of establishing a close partnership between the UK and the EU going forward”.
However, Mr Davis also warned that the talks would be “the most complex” the UK has faced in our lifetimes. “They will be tough and, at times even confrontational,” he said.
“There are already people in Europe who oppose these aims and people at home trying to undermine them.”