Boris Johnson last month received a major boost when he crushed his rivals in the UK general election, which saw his Conservative Party secure a huge majority of 80 in the House of Commons. This enabled him to finally get his Brexit deal voted through Parliament, putting the wheels in motion for the UK’s long-awaited departure from the European Union. Mr Johnson is continuing to insist he will not extend the transition period beyond the end of this year, and wants a free trade deal agreed with the EU before then.
But several EU heavyweights, including European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier, have warned over the tight timeframe in which to meet this target.
Last year, Mr Johnson continued to insist Britain would leave the EU on October 31 – with or without a deal – but was defeated by MPs earlier this month on a motion aimed at blocking a no deal Brexit.
He continued to stand his ground, warning he would refuse to ask the EU for an extension until January 31, 2020, raging he would “rather die in a ditch”, but later relented on this.
Phil Hogan, the new EU Commissioner for Trade, told the Irish times: “In the past, we saw the way the prime minister promised to die in the ditch rather than extend the deadline for Brexit, only for him to do just that.
“I don’t believe Prime Minister Johnson will die in the ditch over the timeline for the future relationship either.”
Last week, Ms von der Leyen said she had “serious concern” over the lack of time available for the future relationship negotiations, and urged Mr Johnson to reconsider the deadline.
She told French newspaper Les Echos: “It’s not only about negotiating a free trade deal but many other subjects.
“It seems to me that on both sides we must ask ourselves seriously if all these negotiations are feasible in such a short time.”
The transition period can be extended for a further two years, but this must be agreed by July 1.
The European Commission President warned this date will provide a “moment of truth” in talks between the UK and EU.
Mr Hogan also lashed out at the UK Government’s decision to include a clause in the legislation ruling out an extension to the transition period beyond the end of this year, describing it as “very odd” and suggesting the move is a “political stunt”.
He said: “At first sight this seems very odd indeed. From our point of view it is important that we move from stunt to substance. It would be helpful if the focus was on content rather than timetables.”
The EU Commissioner for Trade warned talks on the future relationship would involve complex and difficult choices.
Mr Hogan said: “There are positive aspects for making progress. We are not starting from scratch: 45 years of EU membership has led to deep integration in trade and investment and integrated supply chains.
“At the same time, however, the UK wants to disentangle that integration and diverge from the EU. This will have negative consequences for our economies.
“An ambitious free trade agreement will not change the facts on Brexit. Particularly on goods the UK Government has so far avoided any statement of the UK aligning with the EU on regulatory aspects.
“We all have to come to terms with the reality that Brexit means there will be two markets, not a single market.”
Mr Hogan also warned barriers to trade that EU membership had abolished would now have to be re-established, not because Brussels wants to do so, but because the UK had chosen it.
He said: “As things stand the UK wants to leave the single market and customs union.
“This move still baffles me because the full consequences of that decision are still not understood in the UK.
“Why trade a Rolls Royce for a second-hand saloon?”
Additional reporting by Monika Pallenberg.
BORIS JOHNSON's pledge not to extend the Brexit transition period for the UK's departure from the European Union beyond December 2020 has been torn apart by the bloc's new Commissioner for Trade, who believes he "won't die in the ditch" this time either.