British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on Monday denied that his government was seeking to row back on the UK’s EU withdrawal deal, despite an apparent growing backlash against Brexit.
Brexit-supporter Sunak told business leaders that life outside the European Union was “already delivering enormous benefits and opportunities”.
He touted greater curbs on immigration — a key plank of the Brexit deal — and closer trade ties with Asia.
But he added: “Let me be unequivocal about this: under my leadership, the United Kingdom will not pursue any relationship with Europe that relies on alignment with EU laws.”
The UK left the EU in full in January 2021, after years of political wrangling since the divisive referendum n 2016 to split from the bloc.
Brexit saw the UK withdraw from the European single market and customs union, while free movement between member states and the jurisdiction of European courts ended.
But a deal between London and Brussels maintained largely tariff-free trade with its remaining 27 members.
Sunak’s comments follow a Sunday Times report that “senior government figures” were planning to “put Britain on the path towards a Swiss-style relationship” with the EU.
Switzerland has far closer ties with the bloc through bilateral agreements allowing access to the single market, a high degree of free movement and by paying into EU coffers.
The report, and comments last week by finance minister Jeremy Hunt, who voted to remain in the EU, that he was eager to remove the “vast majority” of trade barriers with the EU.
That has sparked unease among eurosceptic members of the ruling Conservative party.
“The government has got to focus on what it needs to do, rather than trying to reopen a settled debate about Europe,” former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith told The Sun.
– Bad deals? –
The backlash stirred memories of the febrile aftermath of the referendum about how best to deliver Brexit.
Former prime minister Boris Johnson, a staunch critic of his predecessor Theresa May’s plan for Swiss-style ties, eventually won the argument with his harder version of Brexit.
He won a landslide election victory in December 2019 on a vow to “get Brexit done”, having negotiated his own 2019 divorce deal.
However, three years on, the UK is in a deep economic crisis and criticism of both Johnson’s agreement and the whole Brexit project is increasing.
Amid decades-high inflation and forecasts of its longest ever recession, a new YouGov poll last week suggested 56 percent of people now think it was wrong to leave the EU.
Some 32 percent were still in favour.
The Office for Budget Responsibility watchdog assessed that Brexit had had a “significant adverse impact” on UK trade, in comments backed by the Bank of England.
The OBR blamed Brexit for reducing overall trade volumes and denting trading relationships with the bloc.
The gloomy economic news was compounded by London losing its prized status as the biggest European stock market to Paris.
Brexiteers promised to strike trade deals around the world, including with the potentially lucrative United States market.
But an agreement with Washington is unlikely anytime soon.
Accords London has struck with other countries — negotiated by Sunak’s short-lived predecessor Liz Truss as trade minister — are also being lambasted.
Former environment minister George Eustice said last week that the agreement he helped finalise with Australia almost a year ago was “not actually a very good deal for the UK”.
“Overall, the truth of the matter is that the UK gave away far too much, for far too little in return,” he told MPs in parliament, citing liberalisation of beef and sheep markets.
In Brussels, the European Commission said: “Our relationship with the United Kingdom is based on the Withdrawal Agreement and the Trade and Cooperation Agreement.”
A temporary deal for food and agricultural products was “the only Swiss-style deal or offer on the table as far as we’re concerned”, a spokesman told reporters.