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UK warns EU it will walk away from trade talks in June if no agreement on the horizon

3 min read

The UK government has warned the EU it is prepared to walk away from trade talks in June unless clear progress is being made in the negotiations.

Whitehall officials said they are ready to step up preparations for leaving the bloc's regulatory regime without an agreement at the end of this year.

The warning - which is likely to cause fury in Brussels - came as Downing Street published a document setting out what it wants to achieve in the talks, which are due to kick off on Monday.

Under the withdrawal agreement struck with the European Commission by Boris Johnson last year, the UK will continue following most of the EU's rules during a transition period running until the end of this year.

It had been hoped that both sides would be able to strike a Canada-style free trade agreement before 1 January next year.

But in a sign that the Government is prepared to play hardball in the negotiations, the 30-page negotiation mandate makes clear that the PM could call off the talks within three months of them starting.

The document says "the UK is committed to working in a speedy and determined fashion" to make progress between now and a stock-taking meeting in June.

"The Government would hope that, by that point, the broad outline of an agreement would be clear and be capable of being rapidly finalised by September," it said.

"If that does not seem to be the case at the June meeting, the Government will need to decide whether the UK's attention should move away from negotiations and focus solely on continuing domestic preparations to exit the transition period in an orderly fashion."

Whitehall officials admitted that would lead to customs posts being erected at the UK's border with the EU to allow the checks of goods travelling to and from the continent.

They also made clear that Mr Johnson does not feel bound by the "political declaration" he signed alongside the Brexit withdrawal agreement last autumn setting out the future relationship between the UK and EU.

Michel Barnier, the EU's chief Brexit negotiator, has insisted that all elements of the Brexit deal - including the political declaration - should be implemented "to the letter".

But the Government insists that Brussels has already ditched some elements of it when it published its own negotiating mandate earlier this week.

They also claim that the contents of the Tory election manifesto - which led to the PM's 80-seat Commons majority - trumps the political declaration, making it virtually worthless.

Setting out the Government's position in the House of Commons, Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove said: "It is our aim to agree a comprehensive free trade agreement, as well as agreement on issues such as fisheries, internal security and aviation.

"We're confident that those negotiations will lead to outcomes that work for both the UK and the EU, but this House, our European partners and above all the British people, should be in no doubt that at the end of the transition period, on 31 December, the United Kingdom will fully recover its economic and political independence.

"We want the best possible trading relationship with the EU, but in pursuit of a deal we will not trade away our sovereignty."

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