European Union officials have rejected Dominic Raab’s claim that negotiating a free-trade deal would be “much easier” after a no-deal Brexit.
While the foreign secretary contends that leaving the EU without an agreement would ease the way to solving the disputed Irish border question, European sources fear a no-deal Brexit would trigger an acrimonious blame game.
“It would mean the complete breakdown of political relations and I don’t think there would be much trust on the EU side with the Tories, or with the prime minister,” a senior diplomat said.
“Eventually we would get around it because we are pragmatic, but this would be really, really bad, because of all the rhetoric around blaming.”
A second diplomat, speaking before Raab’s intervention, argued that all contact would cease after a no-deal Brexit. “Our phones will not be connected at that time … I don’t think they will be connected to someone who has reneged on their obligations,” they said.
European officials agree that a precondition of talks would be a British pledge to honour the three core parts of the withdrawal agreement – citizens’ rights, the Irish border and the financial settlement.
At the weekend, the EU budget commissioner, Günther Oettinger, told Der Tagesspiegel the UK’s credit rating would be hit if Boris Johnson carried out his threat not to honour payments promised to the EU.
Tanja Fajon, the Social Democrat member of the European parliament’s foreign affairs committee, said: “To negotiate a free trade agreement usually takes years and I believe the UK doesn’t have that time after a no-deal Brexit.”
The MEP, allied to the Labour party, added: “Who would want to do business with [Johnson] if he is serious with his threats not to pay €60bn (£54bn) debts to the EU? Who wants to deal with the country who doesn’t pay its bills?”
Fajon was citing an unofficial, outdated Brussels estimate of the Brexit bill, which is much higher than the €39bn the British government has calculated.
In reality, both figures need to be adjusted because of the UK’s delayed departure. As an EU member state, the UK continues to make contributions to the EU budget, lowering the final “Brexit bill”, which is based on honouring commitments until 2021.
Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Raab said both sides needed to be flexible, while giving no hint of compromise from the government. He said it would be much easier to deal with the Irish backstop through a free-trade agreement once the UK was no longer subject to “the demands and unilateral dictates of the EU” as a member of the the bloc.
The EU has ruled out reopening the deal agreed with Theresa May, including the British-designed backstop, which is seen in Brussels as a major concession to the UK.
Brussels sources hope soft-Brexit Tories will prevent the UK leaving without a deal, but think the EU has no choice but to stick to its strategywhen faced with “impossible demands” from London.
Johnson was “playing in the casino”, said the senior diplomat, who argued that the Brexit process, from David Cameron’s referendum to Johnson’s no-deal pledge, was an attempt for Conservative party unity. “How can you negotiate with a partner who has just proven that he is completely irrational and just willing to destroy things to keep his party completely united?” the diplomat said.
After the weekend media blitz from Johnson’s ministers on no-deal planning, a European commission spokesman reiterated that the EU would defend its own interests.
“The UK preparedness is not for us to deal with. Our no-deal preparedness protects the EU and our interests in the case of a no-deal Brexit. A no-deal scenario is not our preferred outcome.”