LONDON — Less than three days after the United Kingdom became the first nation ever to leave the European Union, the two sides on monday set out competing positions on the terms of their future relationship, in what could be the biggest showdown yet between them.
While the U.K. says it won't follow E.U. rules after Brexit, Brussels argues this is the price for getting a comprehensive trade deal.
In an ornate hall in Greenwich, southeast London, where 18th-century paintings celebrate Britain's prosperity and power, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the U.K. was "ready to take off its Clark Kent spectacles and leap into the phone booth and emerge with his cloak flowing as the supercharged champion of the right of populations of the Earth to buy and sell freely among each other."
He stressed that the U.K. wanted a "thriving trade and economic relationship with the E.U.," but made clear that the U.K. would not be bound by European standards on social legislation, state aid and the environment in any agreement.
"Are we going to insist that the EU does everything that we do as the price of free trade? Of course not," he said, as he reassured the E.U. that Britain wasn't leaving to undermine the 27-nation bloc.
Johnson also expressed excitement about striking a trade deal with the U.S., but stressed that the publicly funded National Health Service wasn't on the table, and that tariffs on Scotch whiskey should be cut.
Earlier, the E.U.'s chief negotiator Michel Barnier warned that the U.K. that could have access to its market of 450 million consumers as part of a wide-ranging trade deal, but only if it abides by E.U. standards.
Calling Brexit a somber and emotional moment, Barnier said in Brussels on Monday that the talks were an opportunity for a new relationship, as he released the bloc’s draft negotiating guidelines.
"When you’re not a member of the European Union then your position is different and less favorable," said Barnier on Monday.
"This has never been done and it's a real challenge to come up with a trade agreement like the ones we have with Canada, or South Korea or Japan," he added later in the press conference.
The U.K.’s divorce from the E.U. became official on Friday night at 11 p.m., three and a half years after the nation voted to leave the bloc in a referendum on June 23, 2016. Despite its official departure, the U.K. will still be subject to all E.U. laws and regulations until at least the end of 2020 in a transition period that could be extended by up to two years.
During that time, the U.K. will need to secure an agreement on its future relationship with the E.U., including the finer details of trade, security and data sharing — a task that most experts and the E.U. itself says will be nearly impossible to complete in full with such a short time frame.
Official post-Brexit talks won’t start until next month, after the guidelines have been formally approved by the E.U. member states.
As the U.K. officially left, the E.U. had warm words of farewell, but it has repeatedly made it clear that it would look after the interests of its member nations.
“We are proud of everything the E.U. and U.K. have achieved together,” said a video about Brexit that Barnier posted on Twitter on Saturday. “But our loyalty lies foremost with E.U. citizens.”
E.U. leaders have repeatedly warned that the deadline of Dec. 31, 2020 makes the timetable too tight to strike a full trade deal.
Free-trade agreements typically take years. The E.U.-Canada deal that the British government cites as a potential model for its future framework took seven years to negotiate.
If there is no deal by the end of 2020, and the U.K. refuses to extend the negotiating period, Britain faces an abrupt, disruptive economic break from the bloc — with tariffs and other obstacles to trade imposed immediately between the U.K. and the EU.
That prospect alarms many businesses, especially in sectors such as the auto industry, which depend on the easy flow of parts across borders.