Britain’s foreign minister Boris Johnson showed little sign on Wednesday of softening his tough stance on Brexit in a speech billed as aiming to soothe concerns among voters about the economic impact of leaving the European Union.
Johnson is among those pushing for a harder Brexit which would move Britain away from EU rules and allow it to sign trade deals with non-EU countries.
But Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservative government, like the country, remains deeply split on the issue as the clock ticks towards the formal exit date, March 29, 2019, and is under fire for not being clearer about what it wants from Brexit.
In the first of a series of speeches by government ministers meant to flesh out such a vision, Johnson said the benefits of being in the EU’s single market and customs union were “nothing like as conspicuous or irrefutable” as their supporters argue.
But business leaders said Johnson’s speech failed to spell out any details on Britain’s future relationship with the 27-nation EU, by far its biggest trade partner.
Johnson, one of the leaders of the “Leave” campaign in the 2016 referendum, said Brexit was about democracy, not hostility towards the rest of Europe, adding that Britain would remain open to immigration after it leaves the EU.
“It’s not some great V-sign from the cliffs of Dover,” he said, referring to a traditional rude British hand gesture. “It is the expression of a legitimate and natural desire to self govern of the people, by the people, for the people.”
Some in May’s government, including finance minister Philip Hammond, who like the prime minister voted to stay in the EU, favour a “soft Brexit” in which Britain stays as closely aligned as possible to the bloc to minimise disruption to the economy.
“WRANGLING AND TURMOIL”
Many business leaders, anxious to preserve cross-border supply chains, support that approach to Brexit. “Businesses are becoming increasingly worried at the lack of detail coming from government, and this speech (by Johnson) does not make its plan any clearer,” said Stephen Phipson, head of EEF, a manufacturing industry group.
Johnson said it would be “mad” to end up with a settlement that does not allow Britain to enjoy the economic freedoms of leaving the EU, though he said he was happy for Britain to remain subject to EU law during a planned transition period after March 2019, to give businesses greater certainty.
It remains to be seen which side of the debate May will eventually back. She is due to meet German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Friday as London and the rest of the EU try to agree on the terms of a transition deal to smooth Britain’s exit.
Johnson accused some British “Remain” supporters of seeking to reverse Brexit, possibly through a second referendum, saying this would greatly exacerbate Britain’s political divisions.
“If there were to be a second vote I believe that we would simply have another year of wrangling and turmoil and feuding in which the whole country would lose,” he said.
Johnson’s aides billed Wednesday’s speech as a chance for him to show a path for “an outward-facing, liberal, and global Britain following our exit from the EU”.
They say Johnson has become increasingly worried that what he sees as his Brexit legacy – a promise to return millions of pounds to Britain’s state-funded health service – is being squandered by an indecisive May.