LONDON — Boris Johnson said Wednesday it would be “intolerable” if Britain did not take back control of its laws when it leaves the European Union.
The U.K. foreign secretary, one of the most prominent figures in the Vote Leave campaign, said in a speech in London it was only by taking back control of regulation and tariff schedules that the country would be able to do serious free-trade deals, and exploit changes in the world economy.
Johnson is the first of a number of U.K. Cabinet ministers to give keynote speeches in the coming weeks about Britain’s departure from the European Union amid sustained pressure from Brussels for the U.K. to set out in more detail what kind of future relationship it wants to have with the bloc.
Theresa May’s Cabinet is meeting, likely next week, for an away day at the prime minister’s country residence Chequers, with the EU hoping for clarity on how aligned the U.K. wants to be to EU rules and customs arrangements after Brexit.
Johnson’s unequivocal commitment to diverge from EU regulation runs counter to some of his Cabinet colleagues who are open to a customs union of sorts, fearing a hard break with the European Union could disrupt trade flows.
Last week Downing Street reiterated that the U.K. government intends to leave the customs union and the speech — which was signed off by No. 10 Downing Street — will be seen by some as a message that the U.K. government is set on regulatory divergence.
Johnson accused the EU of creating regulation that was “expressly teleological” and was there to “achieve a political goal.”
“The aim is to create an overarching European state as the basis for a new sense of European political identity,” he said.
Speaking in Brussels, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker rejected Johnson’s characterization of the EU as “total nonsense.”
“Some in the British political society are against the truth, pretending that I am stupid, stubborn federalist, that I’m in favor of a European super state,” Juncker said. “We are not the United States of America, we are the European Union, which is a rich body because we have these 27-28 nations.”
Sarah Wollaston, a senior Conservative backbencher, who chairs the U.K. parliament’s health select committee, tweeted Johnson’s speech “did not address any of the serious practical difficulties” that will affect people’s lives with a hard Brexit.
She called for a “serious speech” that addressed the “reality of the practical issues, timescales and contingency planning including Irish border.”
Anna Soubry, a former Tory minister, said Johnson had failed to “understand the very real concerns of British business,” claiming his speech would “drive many to deeper despair.”
The foreign secretary said there was “current bout of Brexchosis” in the U.K. that missed the truth and added people’s fears about Brexit were “unfounded.” He said in some quarters he detected a “hardening of the mood” and a “deepening of the anger” against Brexit.
But he urged people to unite behind an “outward-looking, confident” U.K.
Rejecting the suggestion that Brexit was “some un-British spasm of bad manners,” he said: “It is not some great V-sign from the cliffs of Dover.”
However, Labour’s Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer said that “instead of building the consensus we need, the government’s approach will only further divide the country and put jobs, rights and living standards at risk.”
He said the speech “underlined” the government’s intention to deliver “a Brexit of deregulation, where rights and protections are casually cast aside…”
While the foreign secretary did not rule out resigning from the Cabinet in future, he offered support to U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May, who he said was the cure to this fictional ailment of “Brexchosis.”
Johnson acknowledged that during the transition period immediately after the U.K. leaves the bloc in March 2019 things would “remain as they are.”