Last week, the EU‘s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, said a trade deal with the UK by the end of the year appears “unlikely”. The latest round of talks broke out in London on Thursday, with Mr Barnier telling reporters in a virtual press conference that the two sides were “still far away” from agreement. He complained Britain was demanding “near total exclusion” of European fishing boats from its waters.
While there have been signs of compromise in some key issues, such as the need for a single deal rather than multiple sectoral agreements, Brussels still insists on maintaining its current fishing rights in British waters and wants London to agree to a number of EU regulations, including environmental standards, workers’ rights and state aid rules.
On the other hand, Mr Johnson is demanding the right to diverge from the bloc’s rules in order to strike trade agreements around the world.
In a statement, the UK’s chief negotiator, David Frost, also concurred that there were “considerable gaps”.
As no deal looks increasingly likely, unearthed reports shed light on Philip Hammond’s attempts to keep Britain in the customs union.
Brexit betrayal: Philip Hammond’s plot to give EU control of UK trade laid bare
UK’s chief Brexit negotiator David Frost and his EU counterpart Michel Barnier
According to a throwback report by the Daily Express, in 2017, the former Chancellor of the Exchequer was leading efforts to keep the UK in the body and allow Brussels to control British trade.
The development would have been a blow to the country’s Brexit boom at a time when 50 countries around the world had expressed an interest in a free trade deal with the UK.
The row came as Malta’s Prime Minister Joseph Muscat ditched his country’s close ties with the UK and joined hardliners in Brussels in calling for Britain to be punished for Brexit.
A senior Tory source said: “It looks like we have won the argument over leaving the single market.
“But the messages coming out are suggesting we may still end up staying in the customs union either fully or partly, which would be a disaster.
“It seems that there is a split in the Cabinet and Philip Hammond and the Treasury are fighting hard to keep us in the customs union.”
Former Brexit Secretary David Davis and ex-Prime Minister Theresa May had so far refused to clarify the Government’s position on the customs union.
Former Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond
Mr Davis had suggested that there were four options including a Swiss co-operation model which would have allowed the country to make free trade deals around the world.
However, senior Brexit figures made it clear there could be no compromise on leaving the EU to allow the UK to forge its own international trade deals.
Former Tory MEP and Leave Means Leave board member David Campbell Bannerman said: “The customs union forces Britain to put up protective walls of tariffs, making food, clothes and shoes more expensive in the UK.
“These are heavy chains and are not beneficial.”
Mr Campbell Bannerman, a member of the European Parliament’s trade committee, added: “As Canada’s new CETA (Comprehensive Eco- nomic and Trade Agreement) deal shows – you can have access to 99 percent of the market outside the customs union and with no fees or free movement.”
Now Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak also said: “If we stay inside, Brussels will be in charge of our trade policy, and their track record is awful.”
Mr Hammond was not only reportedly trying to soften Brexit during his years as Chancellor.
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Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak
Former Prime Minister Theresa May
According to newspaper columnist Rod Liddle, the reason why Mrs May failed to deliver Britain’s withdrawal from the EU is because Mr Hammond effectively took away her strongest weapon during the negotiations: the threat of a no deal divorce.
In his 2019 book “The Great Betrayal”, Mr Liddle said: “Theresa May’s most crucial bargaining chip – we will leave with no deal – was rendered impotent by the actions of members of her own Cabinet and especially the Chancellor of the Exchequer.
“The correct approach to negotiations would’ve been to explain to Barnier et al at the outset: ‘’We are leaving the EU.’
“’We are perfectly happy to do so with no deal other than a WTO deal, and pay you nothing whatsoever.’
“‘But you are our friends and allies and we would like to be helpful…’ “
However, Mr Liddle noted that Mrs May could scarcely use the threat of no deal – which would be gravely injurious to countries within the EU – because the threat was palpably false.
He explained: “At various stages, over the course of 18 months, when May and her team left for negotiations, Philip Hammond, the Chancellor, would state either that there was no possibility of a no deal Brexit, or that a no deal Brexit would mean planes won’t be able to take off or that the economy would be ruined.
“Fellow front-bench Remainers echoed these remarks and added a few of their own.
“Seen from the EU perspective, this made it clear that ‘no deal’ was a paper tiger.
“It should have been the starting point from which negotiations proceeded and of course, Hammond should have been sacked.
“In short, May’s strongest weapon was effectively taken away from her.”