Angela Merkel has highlighted the economic danger posed by Britain if it is allowed to become a Singapore-on-Thames as Boris Johnson’s Brexit envoy outlined a plan to ditch the UK’s commitments to stay aligned to the EU’s social and environmental standards.
In talks with European commission officials, the prime minister’s negotiator, David Frost, insisted that the UK is seeking a “clean break” from an array of the bloc’s regulations, a policy choice from the new British government that has caused alarm in other EU capitals.
As the UK’s new vision was laid out in Brussels, the German chancellor, speaking in the Bundestag, said she was determined to strike a deal with Johnson but that a no-deal Brexit could not be ruled out.
Merkel also warned of the economic threat that the UK could pose. Johnson had privately told EU diplomats during his time as foreign secretary of his desire to build a “buccaneering” Britain, which has been seen as an indication of his plan to recast the UK as a low-tax and low-regulation state.
Merkel’s comments indicate the difficulty that the British government will face in striking what it has described as a “best in class” free trade deal if it fails to match EU standards on goods, workers’ rights, tax and the environment, among others.
EU sources have said that the UK will need to sign up to more onerous, level playing-field obligations than Canada due to the UK’s proximity and the size of its economy.
Diplomats in Brussels said that the British government would be presented with a “Canada minus minus”, potentially including tariffs on some goods, if it seeks to strike a free trade deal without the full array of commitments currently contained in the political declaration on the future relationship agreed with Theresa May.
Merkel told German parliamentarians: “We still have every chance of getting an orderly [Brexit] and the German government will do everything it can to make that possible – right up to the last day. But I also say we are prepared for a disorderly Brexit.
“But the fact remains that after the withdrawal of Britain, we have an economic competitor at our door, even if we want to keep close economic, foreign and security cooperation and friendly relations.
“On the one hand, as Europeans we are weaker with Britain’s exit – that has to be said – but on the other hand, this is the moment to develop new strengths.”
She added: “No country in the world can solve its problems alone and if we all work against each other we will not win. I believe in win-win situations, if we work together.”
A UK government spokesman said: “The UK is seeking to agree a free trade agreement. The EU have always said this is available. Any level playing-field provisions will need to reflect this end state.”
The intervention from Berlin came as France’s minister for Europe, Amélie de Montchalin, accused the UK of breaking “the spirit” of the negotiations by trying to strike “mini-deals” with individual EU member states.
“We see that in the bilateral meetings the British try to get with their opposite numbers that they are trying to organise a managed no deal,” she told a news conference after meeting the 26 ambassadors to France of the EU’s members. The British ambassador was excluded. “And what the British want is to ensure that the different relationships that they have with each EU member state are recreated before the moment of separation, thanks to these mini deals. It is completely contrary to the spirit in which we’ve been negotiating. When [Stephen] Barclay [the UK Brexit secretary] or others try this in France, we say: ‘We hear you. Go and talk to Michel Barnier to see what can be done at the European level.’”
De Montchalin said a no deal was now “highly possible”. She added that a Brexit extension request by the UK would not be accepted under the “current conditions” and the the EU27 would deal with the UK prime minister and not parliament.
She said: “We first have to receive a formal ask. Governments talk to the commission, that’s the way it works. There is no such thing, for example, as parliament asking for an extension. Those who have the legitimacy to represent a country are those who sit at the table of the European council.
“If – and that’s a big if, it seems … we try to follow what’s happening in the UK – but if there is such an ask, we have always said that ‘time for time’ is not an option. So if there is a change in the political scene – a new government, the announcement of elections, something that makes us think the landscape of the discussions is changing – then we will consider an extension.
“I cannot tell you now what might be decided now in such a situation on a night in Brussels in October,” the French minister added. “As we have said, under current circumstances, the answer is no: if nothing changes, we have always said time alone is not a sufficient reason [for another extension]. We cannot commit today, because we have no concrete scenarios yet.”