Brexit minister to EU: We will not be bullied

From left, Dominic Raab and Philip Hammond
From left, Dominic Raab and Philip Hammond

Britain cannot be bullied, Brexit minister Dominic Raab said on Monday, sharpening the government’s criticism of the European Union for taunting Prime Minister Theresa May and souring difficult talks.

May’s ministers have come out one by one at their party’s annual conference in the city of Birmingham to warn the EU that they will embrace leaving without a deal if the bloc fails to show respect in the talks to end Britain’s membership.

Just six months before Britain is due to leave the EU in the country’s biggest shift in foreign and trade policy in more than 40 years, May faces growing criticism over her proposals not only in her governing party but also in Brussels.

Party unity is on ministers’ minds, and they are encouraging the faithful to direct their anger at the EU rather than at their prime minister, who some Conservatives accuse of leading Britain towards a “Brexit in name only”.

Raab said he had called on the EU to match the ambition and pragmatism Britain had put forward with May’s Chequers proposals, named after her country residence where an agreement with her ministers was hashed out in July.

“Unfortunately, that wasn’t on display in Salzburg,” he said, describing a summit in September in the Austrian city where EU leaders rejected parts of the Chequers plan.

“Our prime minister has been constructive and respectful. In return, we heard jibes from senior leaders and we saw a starkly one-sided approach to negotiation.

“What is unthinkable is that this government, or any British government, could be bullied by the threat of some kind of economic embargo into signing a one-sided deal against our country’s interests,” Raab said.

Instead of the much-hopedfor staging post, the Salzburg summit has become a byword for a sharp deterioration in the atmosphere of the talks, when British government officials felt May was ambushed by the other EU leaders over Brexit.

A tweet by European Council president Donald Tusk showing him offering May a selection of cakes with the comment, “A piece of cake, perhaps? Sorry, no cherries”, certainly had an impact, one official said.

Meanwhile, British finance minister Philip Hammond said the UK had the fiscal capacity to cope with leaving the EU without any agreement but believed the mood in Brussels was to reach a divorce deal.

“I’m clear that we will have the fiscal capacity to support the British economy if we were unfortunately to find ourselves in a no-deal situation,” he said.

However, Hammond said the doubts about the future had already hit the economy and the next few weeks would be crucial in securing an agreement with the EU.

“The mood is undoubtedly that people want to do a deal with the UK,” he said.

“People want to minimise the disruption of the UK’s departure from the European Union, they want to continue having a relationship with us and smooth trading partnership in the future.

“Clearly there has been a hit to the economy through the uncertainty the Brexit process has caused.

“Many businesses are sitting on their hands frankly, waiting to see what the outcome of this negotiation is before confirming their plans.”

Reassuring businesses they remain at the heart of the Conservative Party’s plan for the economy will be the focus of Hammond’s speech to his party’s conference.

The business community has expressed frustration over the lack of clarity during the Brexit process and what some see as a decision to put ideology before the economy.

“We back business, as the cornerstone of a successful economy, as a force for good in our society, and as an essential expression of our values,” Hammond will say in his speech to the conference.

The British Chambers of Commerce said it wanted the Conservatives to overcome their internal divisions and “to deliver real-world, practical answers to business’s ongoing questions around Brexit – and avoid a messy and disorderly exit from the EU”.