A British minister attended his country’s last high-level meeting as a European Union member on Tuesday, just days before Brexit puts an end to its half-century EU membership.
Christopher Pincher, minister for Europe and the Americas in Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government, took part in the regular meeting of the EU General Affairs Council.
The United Kingdom will formally leave the bloc at midnight on Friday, Brussels time, and British ministers will no longer take part in internal meetings with those of the remaining 27 member states.
“This is a historic week for the United Kingdom and for the European Union,” Pincher told reporters in Brussels after the otherwise unremarkable ministerial meeting.
As is usual among UK officials, Pincher insisted that Britain is leaving the institutions of the European Union but wants to remain friends with the continent of Europe.
“We are very clear we are an optimistic, outward looking free trading nation and we will look for friendly cooperation with the European Union based on a free trade agreement,” he said.
He thanked Britain’s partners for their friendship over the years, but added: “We’re looking forward to a very different world and a very different relationship.”
Some of the minister’s colleagues, however, were skeptical, warning that Britain would find itself exposed in trade talks with Washington and with the EU, far larger trading economies.
France’s minister for Europe, Amelie de Montchalin, was pessimistic for Johnson’s ambition to forge new deals.
“We lose a partner, we lose a member, and I also feel the UK will lose a lot of support in a lot of negotiations the UK has announced would be launched in the coming weeks,” she said.
“With trade discussions with the US and others the UK will be alone now,” she said, casting doubt on whether there could be a full cross-Channel free trade deal by the end of the year.
Her German counterpart Michael Roth, whose government will hold the EU presidency in the second half of the year, said there was too little time and a comprehensive deal “can’t be done.”
“We don’t have much time,” he told reporters. “Everybody has to realize that the games have to come to an end now. We have wasted a lot of time in the past months.”