UK Politics

Liam Fox wants EU deal but 'not afraid' of not getting one

Liam Fox addressing MPs Image copyright House of Commons

The UK should avoid giving the impression it does not want a Brexit deal or that it would take one at any price, Liam Fox has told MPs.

The international trade secretary said he was "keen" on getting agreement but "not afraid" of ending up without one.

He told a Commons committee some within the EU wanted a "political rather than an economic" settlement based on deterring other members from leaving.

Talk of punishing Britain, he said, was the "language of a gang, not a club".

Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, meanwhile, has said the UK will recruit 50 more diplomats to advance its bilateral influence across Europe after Brexit.

He told the Commons Foreign Affairs committee that the UK had tended to put "all its eggs in the Brussels basket" during its EU membership and extra presence was required in Paris and Berlin as well as capitals that may have been "neglected" in the past.

Ministers say they believe a comprehensive deal with the EU, covering the terms of withdrawal and the UK's future relations, is possible by the March 2019 deadline for the UK leaving, but contingency plans should be put in place in case this does not happen.

Opinion is split within the Conservatives, however, with some senior figures, including Home Secretary Amber Rudd and former Education Secretary Nicky Morgan suggesting that a no-deal scenario was "unthinkable".

Other MPs disagree, arguing that the UK would still be better off outside the EU even if no trade accord was agreed.

Asked about internal party Brexit divisions as he gave evidence to the Commons International Trade Committee, Mr Fox suggested that his party should be thinking within different "parameters".

"We need to stay away from language which suggests we do not want a deal or we want a deal at any price. I think either of these are unhelpful negotiating positions," he said.

"I am very keen we get a deal with the EU but I am not afraid of not getting a deal. Those who say we want a deal at any price undermine our negotiating hand but those who say we want no deal and want to walk away are not taking a realistic view of our economic position."

'Frustrated'

Like others, Mr Fox said he was "frustrated" by how long it was taking for the EU to agree to begin discussions on post-Brexit relations in areas such as trade and defence.

This, he suggested, showed that some within the European Commission were putting political considerations ahead of the economic interests of their constituents.

Asked by Tory MP Nigel Evans if some EU officials wanted to "pay us back" for voting to leave, Mr Fox said: "The language, which is regrettable, that some people want to punish Britain for leaving in case anyone else would want to leave is the language of a gang not a club."

When it leaves the EU in March 2019, Mr Fox said the UK would also exit the single market and customs union and would become an independent "legal entity".

On his trade priorities, he signalled he wanted to build on the UK's current "good performance" in export markets - by maintaining access to existing EU trade agreements with South Korea and Switzerland.

In the longer-term, he said post-Brexit trade agreements with the US, Australia and New Zealand were a priority, as was increasing British business investment abroad to reduce the UK's current account deficit.

For his part, Mr Johnson said Britain should expect the US to drive a very hard bargain in trade talks but he hailed the strong "transatlantic pipeline of co-operation" between the two nations.

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