Boris Johnson ridiculed by European ministers after prosecco claim
Carlo Calenda, an Italian economics minister, said it was insulting that Johnson had told him during a recent meeting that Italy would grant Britain access to the EU’s single market “because you don’t want to lose prosecco exports”.
“He basically said: ‘I don’t want free movement of people but I want the single market,’” he told Bloomberg. “I said: ‘No way.’ He said: ‘You’ll sell less prosecco.’ I said: ‘OK, you’ll sell less fish and chips, but I’ll sell less prosecco to one country and you’ll sell less to 27 countries.’ Putting things on this level is a bit insulting.”
The Italian also attacked the whole government’s approach to the Brexit negotiations, saying the demand by Johnson and others for access to the single market was incompatible with curbs on free movement of people.
“Somebody needs to tell us something, and it needs to be something that makes sense,” he told Bloomberg. “You can’t say that it’s sensible to say we want access to the single market but no free circulation of people. It’s obvious that doesn’t make any sense whatsoever.”
Calenda, a former Italian envoy to Brussels, said: “There’s lots of chaos and we don’t understand what the position is. It’s all becoming an internal UK debate, which is not OK. The British government needs to sit down, put its cards on the table and negotiate.”
A second attack was delivered by the Dutch finance minister and Eurogroup president, Jeroen Dijsselbloem, who said Johnson’s aims of leaving the customs union at the same time as securing immigration controls and maintaining access to the single market were not achievable.
Dijsselbloem told the BBC’s Newsnight: “I think he’s offering to the British people options that are really not available. For example, to say we could be inside the internal market but be outside the customs union, this is impossible, it just doesn’t exist. The opposite does exist. We have a customs union with Turkey but Turkey is not part of the internal market.
“He’s saying things that are intellectually impossible, politically unavailable, so I think he’s not offering the British people a fair view of what is available and what can be achieved in these negotiations.”
Describing Brexit as a lose-lose situation, Dijsselbloem added: “It would be in my country’s interests and in European and British interests if the Brits would stay in the EU but I don’t think it’s going to happen. The next best option is to have as good an agreement as possible but the UK will be outside the single market and there will be some hindrances.”
Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, also appeared to be standing firm on defending the fundamental principle of free movement within the EU on Tuesday but conceded there could be room for further discussion around whether welfare benefits should be immediately available for life if an EU citizen moved to another member state.
Theresa May, the prime minister, has refused to elaborate on her plan for Brexit beyond saying she wants a bespoke deal, curbs on immigration and as much free trade for UK businesses as possible.
She told the House of Commons on Wednesday that being in or out of the EU customs union was “not a binary decision” as her Labour and SNP critics attacked her lack of a strategy for Brexit.
May repeatedly insisted she and her ministers were devising a coherent plan for exiting the EU but would not share details before negotiations began.
Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, focused his questions almost entirely on Brexit and argued that the government was “making a total shambles” of it.
The prime minister plans to trigger article 50, notifying the EU of the UK’s intention to leave the bloc, by the end of March but there are growing concerns that her timetable is too ambitious, after a note by a consultant at Deloitte suggested the government lacked a plan for Brexit and may need to employ up to 30,000 more civil servants to deal with the process.
Sir Simon Fraser, the former permanent secretary at the Foreign Office, told the House of Commons Brexit committee on Wednesday that the note appeared to exaggerate the problems but agreed there was not yet a central plan for leaving the EU.
“My understanding is that it is indeed proving to be a very considerable challenge in Whitehall to do this [drawing up a Brexit plan], that the government has not yet reached the point where … it is still in information-gathering mode and is not yet at the point of integrating that into a central plan. And that, I assume, will have to happen before the triggering of article 50 next year.
“And I agree that this is a huge burden, a huge additional load, for the civil service. This is an extraordinary complex range of activity across a wide range of domestic and international policies and it will definitely impose a great burden on the civil service.”
In response, Michael Gove, the former cabinet minister and leading Brexit campaigner, pressed for the UK to achieve a “quickie divorce” with the EU regardless of the economic consequences, as he raised concerns that civil servants were overcomplicating the process.
The former justice secretary, who led the Vote Leave campaign with Johnson, questioned why the UK could not just leave the EU without having settled its future relationship with the bloc after having sorted out “housekeeping” related to outstanding payments.
“Can we simplify?” Gove said. “What if I were to determine to simply leave the European Union, to trigger article 50 and to conclude the bare minimum in order to leave? What would article 50 actually require me to agree?
“For the purposes of this question, I am not worried about transitional arrangements, I am prepared to take the economic hit or to secure the economic benefits of not being inside the single market and being outside the customs union. I simply want the divorce on the quickest possible terms. What do I need in that quickie divorce?”