British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said Tuesday that the U.K. will flourish with or without an agreement on its relationship with the European Union after it leaves the grouping next year.
A “no-deal” Brexit is possible, he said in an interview in Tokyo, “but I don’t think it’s in anyone’s interest for that to happen. So that’s why we are cautiously optimistic that we will get a deal. But there’s a lot of work to do to get there.”
British Prime Minister Theresa May travels to Salzburg, Austria, on Wednesday to meet other EU leaders. She needs to win over both the European Union and critics of her Brexit proposal within her own Conservative Party. Britain is due to leave the EU on March 29.
Japanese companies with operations in Britain are among those worried about the impact of a “no-deal” Brexit, in particular on their ability to export from the U.K. to the rest of Europe without tariffs or other trade restrictions. Under a no-deal scenario, the U.K. would leave the EU without establishing rules for future trade between Britain and the 27 remaining EU member countries.
“The U.K. will flourish and prosper as one of the strongest economies in the world whatever the outcome of these talks,” Hunt said, noting its business-friendly environment and strong universities.
He defended the May government’s proposed Brexit deal, which has been roundly attacked by his predecessor, Boris Johnson. Hunt succeeded Johnson as foreign secretary in July.
“British politics is littered with the graveyards of people who have predicted the demise of Theresa May and been proved wrong,” he said.
“Of course Boris Johnson doesn’t agree with some of the policy decisions that she’s taken, but Theresa May has to speak not just for the 52 percent who voted for Brexit, she has to speak for 100 percent of the country,” he added.
Hunt is in the Japanese capital to hold annual U.K.-Japan strategic dialogue talks with Foreign Minister Taro Kono.
He said he welcomes the summit that started Tuesday between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, but that the time has come for the North to take concrete steps toward eliminating its nuclear weapons.
“Words get you so far. I think words have helped, they’ve changed the atmosphere, but we need to see actions now,” he said.
Britain has sent warships to the Pacific to help patrol for transfers between ships at sea that violate economic sanctions on North Korea. Hunt said Britain is ready to relax sanctions if there is concrete evidence of change on the North Korean side.
Hunt, who lived in Japan in the early 1990s, delivered a short speech without notes in Japanese to about 50 people from U.K.-Japan exchange programs.