LONDON (Reuters) - Foreign minister Boris Johnson said on Thursday Britain’s exit from the European Union would not be acrimonious, adding he hoped to negotiate a new relationship with the bloc that would be more valuable than the current one.
Last week, sterling fell to a 31-year low against the dollar on a view that Prime Minister Theresa May was backing a disruptive exit from the bloc giving immigration controls priority over a preferential trading relationship with the EU’s 500-million-strong consumer market.
Johnson, a leading figure of the successful campaign for Britain to leave the EU, is one of a trio of Eurosceptics at the heart of May’s government who will have a key role in shaping the country’s new approach to global trade and diplomacy.
Speaking in front of a committee of MPs in parliament, he sought to play down the prospect of the so-called ‘Hard Brexit’ scenario.
“I think it is so important to recast this whole conversation and ... to stop thinking of it as this acrimonious divorce. It’s not going to be like that, it’s going to be the development of a new European partnership between Britain and the EU,” he told a parliamentary committee.
European leaders have repeatedly said that if Britain wants to remain a member of the bloc’s barrier-free internal single market it needs to accept the principle of freedom of movement, which allows workers to settle anywhere within the EU.
But Johnson said the idea that the right to free movement was written “on tablets of stone in Brussels” was “complete nonsense”, citing his own experience of having to prove his financial independence when living in Belgium in 1989.
Asked whether he wanted to retain membership of the single market, Johnson said the term single market was becoming “increasingly useless”.
“We are going to get a deal of huge value and possibly greater value,” he said citing the prospect of gaining freer trade in services than the bloc currently allows, and Britain’s leverage as a huge consumer of EU goods.
The slide in sterling was triggered by May’s announcement earlier this month that she would begin the legal process for exiting the bloc by the end of March, at which point Britain enters an initial two-year negotiating period on its exit deal.
“I think there will be a deal,” Johnson said. “If it can’t be done in two years then there are mechanisms for extending the period of discussion. I don’t think that will be necessary, I think we can do it.”
editing by Stephen Addison and Ralph Boulton