Boris Johnson’s chief Brexit negotiator has been accused of treating the EU and the UK as if they are “living on two different planets” after vowing to break all regulatory ties with Brussels.
Guy Verhofstadt, the former Belgian prime minister who has led the European parliament’s approach to Brexit, said it would be a “hell of a job” to secure a successful outcome from the negotiation using the British approach.
“It’s not a good thing that we continue to discuss the future relationship as if the UK and Europe are living on two different planets because the UK market and the market are so close to each other – physically, geographically,” Verhofstadt told reporters during a joint press conference with Sadiq Khan. “And so, these things are so intense that we have to look at it in a little bit of a different way than to simply say, this is a pure free trade deal.”
In a speech in the Belgian capital on Monday night, David Frost, Johnson’s chief Brexit negotiator, insisted the UK would not sign up to alignment with EU rules or any supervisory role for the European court of justice, adding that the two sides were “genuinely sovereign equals”.
The EU’s draft negotiating mandate published earlier this month had sought non-regression from the UK on environmental, social and workers standards and “dynamic alignment” with Brussels’s state aid and competition rules.
Frost said the government would only accept similar commitments to those contained in the trade agreement with Canada, under which there is an obligation to avoid trade distortions through reducing regulatory standards or allowing excessive industrial subsidies. He added that the UK was willing to trade on WTO terms, meaning significant tariffs on goods.
Khan, who was on a visit to Brussels for meetings with senior officials, including the EU’s chief negotiator, voiced his own concerns about the UK government’s direction of travel while conceding that a campaign to rejoin the bloc was unrealistic in the “short to medium term”.
“I accept we’ve now left the European Union. I suspect we will be ending the transition period at the end of December,” Khan said. “I think the key thing is in the short term, and medium term for us to make Brexit a success. You know I don’t want my country to suffer.”
With the backing of Verhofstadt, the mayor of London, who is up for re-election this year, said the next best thing for Britons would be for the EU to offer “associate EU citizenship” for those who wanted it.
The idea, first raised in 2016 by Verhofstadt, would involve continued freedom of movement and residence around the bloc for those who wished to retain such rights. Such a status would also protect rights in healthcare, welfare and workplace conditions and likely the right to vote in European parliament elections.
The chances of such an initiative making headway in the negotiations are extremely limited as it would be unlawful under EU treaties.