UK businesses clamoured for compromise on Sunday as Prime Minister Boris Johnson said failure remains the “most likely” outcome to marathon post-Brexit trade talks with the European Union.
“I’m afraid we’re still very far apart on some key things, but where there’s life there’s hope,” Johnson told reporters, after agreeing with EU commission chief Ursula von der Leyen to push on with negotiations.
The pair had said they would decide whether or not a deal was possible by the end of the weekend, but agreed in a phone call to “go the extra mile” before the UK leaves the EU’s single market on December 31.
“The UK certainly won’t be walking away from the talks. I still think there’s a deal to be done if our partners want to do it,” Johnson said at 10 Downing Street after briefing his cabinet about the call.
But Britain could not compromise on the “fundamental nature” of Brexit, controlling UK laws and fisheries, he said.
“The most likely thing now is of course we have to get ready for WTO terms,” Johnson added, referring to tariffs and quotas on the basic rules of trade set by the World Trade Organisation.
“There is a clarity and a simplicity in that approach that has its own advantages. It’s not where we wanted to get to… but the UK is prepared,” he said.
“Either way, whatever happens, the UK will do very, very well.”
UK businesses welcomed the agreement to keep talking, but disagreed strongly with Johnson’s cheerful forecasts for Britain’s future if it severs all ties with its biggest overall trading partner from the New Year.
“We now need negotiators to finish the job and agree the deal we all so desperately need,” Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders chief executive Mike Hawes tweeted.
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– ‘Catastrophic’ –
Hawes added: “‘No deal’ would be nothing less than catastrophic for the automative sector, its workers and their families, and represent a stunning failure of statecraft. Quite simply, it has to be ruled out.”
Nissan has warned that a no-deal Brexit would make its Sunderland car factory in northeast England, which employs more than 6,000 workers, unviable due to the restoration of tariffs on cross-Channel trade.
Last week, Japanese automaker Honda suspended production at its British plant for a day after suffering a shortfall in parts, owing to blockages at ports caused by the coronavirus pandemic and Brexit stockpiling.
Even with a trade deal, Britain will still be out of the EU’s common market and businesses will face new customs regulations and paperwork.
They warn the government has failed to get vital IT systems ready in time, leading to fears of transport gridlock on roads and at ports.
Confederation of British Industry director-general Tony Danker said the news of talks continuing “gives hope”, but demanded the government fix the IT rollout and offer more support to businesses.
“A deal is both essential and possible. It is the only way to build upon the extensive support for the economy given by all governments during the pandemic. Without it, that progress is undermined,” he said in a statement.
The British Chambers of Commerce appealed to London and Brussels not to give up.
“Even at this unbelievably late hour, the message from business to UK and EU leaders is still the same. Keep going. Get a deal done,” BCC director general Adam Marshall tweeted.
But Johnson is under pressure from pro-Brexit hardliners in his Conservative party not to back down.
“A long complex legal agreement that locks the UK back into many features of the EU that hinder us is not the Christmas present the UK needs,” Tory MP John Redwood said.