Theresa May should have created a minister for ‘no deal’ in the cabinet to send a message to the EU not to “underestimate” Britain, a prominent MEP has said ahead of a Brexiteer meeting with Michel Barnier.
Steven Woolfe, the independent MEP, said it was “naive” to think the EU was not fully preparing for a no deal outcome.
But he told HuffPost UK the failure to strike a free trade agreement would cause both the UK and the EU to “suffer”.
Woolfe, a former leading Ukip figure, is part of a delegation of Brexiteeers, including former CBI boss Lord Digby Jones, Labour Leave chairman John Mills and former British Chamber of Commerce chief John Longworth who will meet with Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, on Wednesday afternoon in Brussels.
It comes as Chancellor Philip Hammond and Brexit Secretary David Davis are launching a charm offensive targeted at German business leaders in an attempt to build support for a post-Brexit trade deal with the EU which would be the “most ambitious in the world”.
Hammond is due to address an economic summit in Berlin on Wednesday while Davis will meet chief executives in Munich.
Former Ukip leader Nigel Farage met with Barnier on Monday. Pro-Remain UK politicians who are not part of the British government have also held meetings including Nick Clegg, Ken Clarke and Lord Adonis.
Woolfe told HuffPost UK the purpose of their meeting was to make sure Barnier had not been “sold the pup of an idea” by any other UK politicians that Brexit would be “reversed”.
“There is a strong support politically, economically and in business just to get this done as quickly as possible,” he said.
But he said the delegation would be seeking to show Brexiteers had a “positive vision” of a future trading relationship between the UK and EU and that a ‘no deal’ outcome was not what they wanted.
“The EU and ourselves should actually try to avoid a zero-sum game a ‘no deal’ could achieve,” he said.
“Not that both parties couldn’t do well well out of it, or survive, or trade. But it’s far better for us to actually act as friends, hold our hands out in conciliation going forward and make sure that we have a trade deal that includes goods and services and ensures all the countries of Europe and the UK move forward positively in a world which, in our view, has done reasonably well in some parts after the financial crisis, but you never know what’s coming round the corner.”
He added: “If we try to fight ourselves by not having a positive trade deal then the negative economics come round and all the countries could suffer in the future.”
Woolfe, who at one point considered defecting to the Tories, said May should have created the suggested ‘no deal’ position in the cabinet during her reshuffle on Monday and Tuesday.
The prime minister had reportedly planned to elevate Brexit minister Steve Baker and give him the specific job of preparing for negotiations on a trade deal with Brussels to fail. However she did not.
“I think it’s unfortunate that Theresa didn’t create a minister for ‘no deal’ because somebody who takes that role does two things. Firstly, it sends a very strong message to the EU that we want to have a deal but don’t underestimate us. We can walk away,” Woolfe said.
“Secondly, and equally importantly, you have to have somebody who is a minister to be able to prepare and work alongside civil servants and other departments for what would happen with ‘no deal’.
“If somebody becomes an expert in that area they can therefore provide that guidance. It would be naive to think the EU isn’t already doing that.”
Davis yesterday caused incredulity in Brussels after he claimed EU plans for a ‘no deal’ discriminated against the UK.
Margaritis Schinas, spokesman for the European Commssion, said he was “surprised that the UK is surprised that we are preparing for a scenario announced by the UK government itself”.
Woolfe said he was “unsurprised” the EU was for trade talks to fail. “That’s exactly the sort of information I’ve heard from German MEPs who in meetings I’ve been with Barnier in the past expressed if you don’t get a trade deal all of us should prepare,” he said.
“I had a conversation with [EU parliament Brexit coordinator] Guy Verhofstadt who told me very clearly that German business had spoken to Angela Merkel and said they must have a clear indication of a trade deal with the UK by the end of March otherwise they will start initiating their own ‘no deal’ scenarios.”
In a speech yesterday, Barnier urged European companies with commercial links to the UK to start preparing for increased “friction” in trade.
He said that the successful conclusion of phase one of Brexit negotiations last month meant that the risk of a disorderly withdrawal had receded, but added: “We must remain ready to deal with all options.”
May did not appoint a ‘no deal’ minister in her reshuffle. However she did hand Brexiteer Suella Fernandez a new job in the Department for Exiting the EU.