Boris Johnson will this week warn business leaders that “time is running out” to prepare for the end of Britain’s Brexit transition period on January 1, amid growing concern that chaos at the border with the EU is looming.
The prime minister will launch a major advertising campaign to publicise customs rules, with one poll last week showing just over half of companies were not fully prepared with 75 days to go.
The prospect of severe disruption increased last week when Downing Street said that negotiations on a trade agreement with the EU were “over”, and that traders should prepare for an outcome of no trade deal.
Amid growing concern in Whitehall of chaos at the ports on January 1, Mr Johnson’s closest allies will this week discreetly attempt to see whether Brussels is willing to offer compromises to allow talks to resume.
David Frost, UK chief negotiator, will speak by phone to Michel Barnier, his EU counterpart, amid hopes in Brussels that formal talks can start again later in the week. That call could take place as soon as Monday.
Meanwhile, Michael Gove, Cabinet Office minister, will hold talks with Maros Sefcovic, his EU counterpart, in London on Monday to discuss the implementation of the Brexit withdrawal agreement.
Mr Gove on Sunday said his optimism about a deal was falling, but that the door remained “ajar” to the EU. Many officials on both sides believe tough talk from London is a prelude to both sides making compromises.
EU officials acknowledged that the removal of the word “intensify” from a summit communiqué — intended to describe the pace of end-game negotiations — was an unintended mis-step that had been seized on in the UK.
Mark Rutte, prime minister of the Netherlands, on Friday said it had led to a “misinterpretation” that the EU was not committed to agreeing a free trade deal. “That has been cleared now,” he said.
Mr Gove and Mr Johnson will make it clear that businesses must prepare for January 1 regardless of whether a trade deal is agreed; government officials said 80 per cent of actions were required “deal or no deal”.
The decision to leave the customs union and single market will generate an estimated 215m customs declarations annually, costing business £7bn, and Mr Gove has not contested industry estimates that 50,000 private sector customs agents will have to be hired to deal with the red tape.
Failure to agree a deal would mean that trade would also be subject to tariffs and quotas, while a bad-tempered breakdown of relations with the EU would increase the likelihood of disruption at the border.
This week the government will launch a “time is running out” advertising campaign, while Mr Johnson and Mr Gove will hold a call with business leaders. HM Revenue & Customs will write to 200,000 traders who do business with the EU setting out new customs and tax rules.
Adam Marshall, director-general of the British Chambers of Commerce, said: “Facing the triple threat of a resurgent coronavirus, tightening restrictions and a disorderly end to the transition period, it is little wonder businesses are struggling to prepare.”
On Sunday, more than 70 British business groups representing more than 7m workers issued a statement appealing to politicians to return to the table this week to strike a free-trade deal.
Organisations from across British business in automotive, aviation, chemicals, farming, pharmaceuticals, tech and financial services sectors have united to urge both sides to find a compromise over trade terms.
Meanwhile, Anglican archbishops of the four countries of the United Kingdom warned that the government’s plans to legally overwrite parts of last year’s Brexit divorce deal covering Northern Ireland would set a “disastrous precedent” for the country.
“If carefully negotiated terms are not honoured and laws can be ‘legally’ broken, on what foundations does our democracy stand?” asked the archbishops of Canterbury, York, Wales, Armagh and the Scottish Episcopal Church in a letter to the Financial Times.
They added that the UK Internal Market Bill, which will have its second reading in the Lords on Monday, also risked undermining the Good Friday Agreement peace deal in Northern Ireland — something the government said the bill is designed to protect.
The bill is principally designed to lay the legal foundations for the British economy after the end of the Brexit transition period when the UK is no longer following rules set in Brussels. But it has attracted fierce criticism from the Scottish and Welsh administrations, which have accused the Westminster government of a “power grab” and risking the break-up of the UK.
The archbishops echoed those fears, warning that unless the consent of the devolved administrations was obtained for the changes — thus far withheld — it would “undermine trust” and “profoundly affect” the relationships between the UK’s four nations.