The international trade secretary, Liam Fox, has ratcheted up the government’s war of words with the EU over Brexit by saying Britain will not be “blackmailed” into paying an excessive exit settlement to speed up a deal.
Fox’s comment follows a tense press conference in Brussels on Thursday after the third round of exit talks, in which the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, accused the UK of being mired in “nostalgia” rather than taking a realistic approach.
Speaking in Tokyo on Friday, where he is accompanying Theresa May on a trip focused on post-Brexit trade, Fox was asked by ITV news whether it was time for Britain to agree on the much-disputed departure settlement with the EU, hastening progress towards the second, trade-focused part of the process.
“We can’t be blackmailed into paying a price on the first part,” Fox said.
He continued: “We think we should begin discussions on the final settlement because that’s good for business, and it’s good for the prosperity both of the British people and of the rest of the people of the European Union.”
Speaking later to Sky News, Fox said he was concerned the Brexit talks were “stuck” on the initial issues.
“I think there is frustration that we have not been able to get on that longer-term issue, that we’re stuck on this separation issue, and we’re not able to get on to the issues that will matter in the longer term for the future prosperity of the UK and the people of Europe.
“And I had representations from businesses from across Europe – from Germany, from Spain – to say: ‘Can we put more pressure on the commission to try and get us a better idea of what that final picture will look like because we need to maintain an open and liberal trading environment in Europe?’”
Fox was speaking ahead of May’s final leg of a three-day trip to Kyoto and Tokyo, focused in part on defence and security, but primarily as an exercise in reassuring Japanese businesses that post-Brexit Britain can remain a gateway to the EU.
After a series of talks with her Japanese counterpart, Shinzo Abe, May won a formal agreement with Japan that the two countries will seek to strike a rapid replacement trade deal once Brexit is completed.
This would be closely based on a long-negotiated economic partnership agreement between the EU and Japan, which both sides aim to sign soon. May hopes such instant copycat deals – termed “cut-and-paste Brexit” by opponents – could be reached with other nations, creating continuity and confidence. They would officially be interim but could last some years before bespoke UK deals are reached.
The release of the joint statement saw Downing Street hail May’s trip to Japan as a great success. However, as she was holding a cordial press conference with Abe in Tokyo, a very different equivalent event was taking place in Brussels.
EU negotiator Barnier, speaking alongside the Brexit secretary, David Davis, warned that the UK’s approach to Brexit was nostalgic, unrealistic and undermined by a lack of trust, his strongest criticism of the UK’s stance at the talks so far.
Barnier said some of the recent British proposals showed “a sort of nostalgia in the form of specific requests which would amount to continuing to enjoy the benefits of the single market and EU membership without actually being part of it”.
This drew an acid response from Davis, who remarked that Barnier should not “confuse a belief in the free market with nostalgia”.
Barnier said he had been left impatient by the British approach and complained there had been “no decisive progress”. Again, Davis disagreed, insisting progress had been “concrete”.
May was due to meet Japan’s Emperor Akihito in Tokyo on Friday morning before attending a wheelchair basketball match, connected to a UK promise to assist Japan ahead of the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics in Tokyo. She was then scheduled to fly back to London.
This article was written by Peter Walker in Tokyo, for theguardian.com on Friday 1st September 2017 03.24 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010