Jeroen Dijsselbloem delivered a scathing attack on Johnson after the foreign secretary claimed the UK would probably be leaving the customs union while also seeking free trade with the EU and extra immigration controls.
Dijsselbloem told the BBC’s Newsnight: “I think he’s offering to the British people options that are really not available. For example, to say we could be inside the internal market but be outside the customs union, this is impossible, it just doesn’t exist. The opposite does exist. We have a customs union with Turkey but Turkey is not part of the internal market.
“He’s saying things that are intellectually impossible, politically unavailable, so I think he’s not offering the British people a fair view of what is available and what can be achieved in these negotiations.”
Describing Brexit as a lose-lose situation, Dijsselbloem added: “It would be in my country’s interests and in European and British interests if the Brits would stay in the EU but I don’t think it’s going to happen. The next best option is to have as good an agreement as possible but the UK will be outside the single market and there will be some hindrances.”
Leaving the customs union would allow the UK to strike trade deals independently with non-EU countries but Whitehall has told cabinet ministers that it could seriously harm the economy by causing extra border checks and bureaucracy.
The government’s Brexit strategy also came under fire on Tuesday from an Italian minister, who described it as chaotic and slammed the UK for holding the EU hostage to Conservative party infighting.
“Somebody needs to tell us something, and it needs to be something that makes sense,” Carlo Calenda, the Italian economic development minister, told Bloomberg. “You can’t say that it’s sensible to say we want access to the single market but no free circulation of people. It’s obvious that doesn’t make any sense whatsoever.”
Calenda, a former Italian envoy to Brussels, said: “There’s lots of chaos and we don’t understand what the position is. It’s all becoming an internal UK debate, which is not OK.” The British government “needs to sit down, put its cards on the table and negotiate”, he said.
In further negative comments on Johnson’s personal strategy, Calenda said the UK foreign secretary had told him during a recent meeting that Italy would grant Britain access to the EU’s single market “because you don’t want to lose prosecco exports”.
“He basically said: ‘I don’t want free movement of people but I want the single market,’” said Calenda. “I said: ‘no way.’ He said: ‘You’ll sell less prosecco.’ I said: ‘OK, you’ll sell less fish and chips, but I’ll sell less prosecco to one country and you’ll sell less to 27 countries.’ Putting things on this level is a bit insulting.”
Calenda insisted he understood the British vote to leave: “I respect the British vote, England is to me a source of great inspiration – as you can see from Winston standing there,” he said, pointing to a life-size cardboard cutout of Churchill in his office.
According to Bloomberg, the figure holds a sign reading in capital letters: “Tact is the ability to tell someone to go to hell in such a way that they look forward to the trip.”
Calenda said: “Once you make a decision, you need to be clear in execution.”
Bill Morneau, the Canadian finance minister, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that Canada would not be negotiating a trade deal with the UK until it was out of EU.
Asked whether the pending Canada-EU free trade deal would automatically result in a Canada-Britain free trade deal on the same terms after Brexit, he said: “We’re going to respect the agreement that the UK has with Europe ... and stand ready to work together after that’s concluded.”
Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, also appeared to be standing firm on defending the fundamental principle of free movement within the EU on Tuesday but conceded there could be room for further discussion around whether welfare benefits should be immediately available for life if an EU citizen moved to another member state.
Author: Rowena Mason and Patrick Wintour