International Trade Secretary Liam Fox has said he is “not afraid” of Britain leaving the EU without a deal, and warned that those seeking to rule this option out are undermining the UK’s negotiating position in Brexit talks.
The leading Cabinet Brexiteer said suggestions in Europe that the UK should be “punished” financially for quitting the EU were “the language of a gang” which should be avoided so as not to damage the economic interests of EU citizens.
Dr Fox told the House of Commons International Trade Committee that he wants a trade deal with the EU, and still believes that agreement will be reached by the Brexit date of March 2019.
But he indicated that any new trading arrangement could not be closer than the current one, under which there is full regulatory harmonisation and 0% tariffs on trade between the UK and the other 27 EU states.
“All that can happen is that we stay the same or move further apart,” Dr Fox told the cross-party committee.
“That’s a political question and it’s a question of whether we end up with a political Brexit, which seems to be what some elements in the (European) Commission want to see, or an economic Brexit, which is in the interests of EU citizens.”
He warned that “any introduction of impediments to trade and investment across the European continent” would “disincentivise” global investors from investing in Europe.
Dr Fox said he was “frustrated” by the fact that the European Council has not yet given the green light for talks to move on from the divorce deal and the question of Britain’s financial settlement, to discuss the future trade relationship.
And he said: “I’m very keen that we get a deal with the EU, but I’m not afraid of not getting a deal. I think we need to work within those parameters.”
“Those who say we want a deal at any price undermine our negotiating hand, and those who say we want no deal and we want to walk away are not taking a realistic view of our economic situation.”
Asked whether he was frustrated by Chancellor Philip Hammond’s apparently “lukewarm” approach to Brexit, Dr Fox told MPs: “I had a very constructive meeting with the Chancellor yesterday that was far from lukewarm.”
Dr Fox added: “I think the language, which is regrettable, that some people want to punish Britain for leaving in case other people would want to leave is the language of a gang not the language of a club and I think it should be avoided.”
“I think there have been some unwise phrases used. I think it is much better for us to get away from the hyperbole.”
Challenged over whether Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson had contributed to the hyperbole by suggesting the EU could “go whistle” if it wanted a large divorce bill from the UK, Dr Fox said: “I think we need to stay away from language that suggests we don’t want a deal or we want a deal at any price.”
“Either of those are unhelpful to our negotiating position.”