British Prime Minister Boris Johnson says he’ll tell U.S. President Donald Trump that the U.K.’s state-funded health service will be off the table in any future trade negotiations, and that the U.S. will have to open its markets to British goods if it wants to make a deal.
Johnson said he would draw his red lines for the protectionist president when the two leaders meet this week at the United Nations General Assembly in New York.
Johnson arrived at the global gathering on Monday with a balancing act to do. He’s trying to persuade European Union leaders to strike an elusive divorce deal with Britain, while also laying the groundwork for a post-Brexit trade agreement with the United States — seen by the government as one of the main prizes of Brexit.
The Conservative prime minister is keen to forge a strong relationship with the Republican president, who has called the British leader “a really good man.”
But Johnson told reporters flying with him to New York that he would tell Trump “that when we do a free trade deal, we must take sure that the (National Health Service) is not on the table, that we do not in any way prejudice or jeopardize our standards on animal welfare and food hygiene in the course of that deal, and that we open up American markets.”
Opponents of Brexit fear the NHS — an overstretched but much-loved institution founded in 1948 to provide free health care to all Britons — will be opened up to private U.S. firms as part of trade negotiations. They also have suggested Britain may have to accept chlorine-washed chicken, a U.S. poultry industry practice that is banned in the European Union.
Johnson is likely to be dogged by Britain’s divisive — and stalled — departure from the EU throughout his three-day trip to the U.N.’s annual gathering of world leaders.
More than three years after Britain voted to leave the EU, the departure date has been postponed twice, and the U.K. Parliament has repeatedly rejected the only divorce deal offered. The country is facing a chaotic exit on Oct. 31 unless Johnson’s government can, against the odds, secure a new agreement — or arrange another delay, something Johnson vows he will not do.
The British leader is seeking to persuade a skeptical European Union to give Britain a new divorce deal before the U.K. is due to leave the bloc on Oct. 31. He is scheduled to hold talks at the U.N. with EU leaders, including European Council President Donald Tusk, French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar.
Johnson said he didn’t think there would be a “New York breakthrough,” but he was encouraged by the progress talks had made since he took office less than two months ago. He replaced Theresa May, who resigned in failure after her EU withdrawal agreement was rejected three times by Parliament.
“If you think about when I first became prime minister, everybody was saying there’s absolutely no chance whatever of changing the existing agreement,” he said. “And I think nobody’s saying that (now).”
“I think a large number of the important partners really do want a deal,” he said.
But many leaders of the 28-nation bloc mistrust Johnson, a brash Brexit champion who played a big role in persuading British voters in 2016 to opt to leave the EU. And they say Britain has not come up with workable ways to maintain an open border between EU member Ireland and the U.K.’s Northern Ireland — the key sticking point in the dispute. An open border underpins both the local economy and the peace process that ended years of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland.
The U.K. says the border can be kept free of customs posts and other obstacles through a mix of as-yet unproven technology and an all-Ireland zone for animals and agricultural products.
“What we are working for is a solution that enables the U.K. and the EU to respect the principles of the (EU) single market … to allow an open border in Northern Ireland; to respect the achievements of the Northern Irish peace process; but also to allow the whole of the U.K. to come out of the EU,” Johnson said. “And there is a way to do that. I think colleagues around the table in Brussels can see how we might do that. All it will take is a political will to get there.”
Johnson is also facing claims that during his tenure as mayor of London between 2008 and 2016, he gave public money and places on overseas U.K. trade trips to a close friend running a startup business. He refused to comment to reporters when asked repeatedly about the allegations, first reported in the Sunday Times newspaper.
The British government is also bracing for a Supreme Court ruling on whether Johnson broke the law when he suspended Parliament for five weeks ahead of the Oct. 31 Brexit deadline.
Johnson says the suspension was a routine measure to prepare for a new session of Parliament. Opponents claim he acted illegally to stop lawmakers from interfering with his plan to leave the EU, with or without a Brexit deal.
The 11 justices say they will rule early this week. A ruling that the suspension was illegal would be a huge blow to Johnson’s authority and could see lawmakers recalled to Parliament immediately.