Negotiators on both sides of the English Channel say this week is the “moment of reckoning” for a post-Brexit trade deal between the European Union and Britain. But after six months of toxic wrangling the odds are mounting an agreement will not be struck, both British and European officials concede.
That result that could poison relations between Britain and its near neighbors for years to come with far-reaching consequences, not only economic but impacted security and intelligence cooperation, too, say analysts.
In the run-up to an eighth round of formal discussions that were to start Tuesday in London both sides were locked in an accelerating cycle of furious recriminations, accusing each other of negotiating in bad faith in talks about Britain’s future relationship with the bloc of 27 European countries.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson's chief Brexit negotiator, David Frost, said there needs to be “more realism” from Brussels about Britain’s “status as an independent country.”
Patience wears thin
Aides of the EU’s top negotiator, Michael Barnier, warned patience is wearing thin and that European officials are ready to abandon the meetings this week in the light of plans by Johnson to unveil new legislation that would override key parts of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement, a framework treaty struck last year that set the terms of Britain’s departure from the EU.
Johnson has said that unless there is an agreement by October 15, he will walk away from talks. “There is no sense in thinking about timelines that go beyond that point. If we can't agree by then, then I do not see that there will be a free trade agreement between us, and we should both accept that and move on,” Johnson said in a statement last week. His threat worries many sectors of British business, whose bosses say Britain will be worse of without a trade deal.
The eve of the talks has been dominated by fallout from the proposed publication of the new legislation, which could result in aspects of the withdrawal deal being negated. They mainly concern Northern Ireland, which will remain within the EU’s internal market under the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement, avoiding the necessity of a so-called hard border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, but requiring customs checks between Northern Ireland and the rest of Britain and for EU rules limiting state aid to businesses in the province to be observed.
Johnson’s plans to pick and choose about customs checks between Northern Ireland and the rest of Britain and he is keen to water down state aid rules. The disclosure about the proposed legislation, which is due to be published Wednesday, have added a new source of friction to the talks.
Barnier warned Tuesday that if Britain fails to abide by the Withdrawal Agreement, then it will wreck any chance of a future free trade deal.
The president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, has warned Boris Johnson not to break international law by overriding the Brexit agreement. “I trust the British government to implement the withdrawal agreement, an obligation under international law & prerequisite for any future partnership,” Von der Leyen tweeted. “Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland is essential to protect peace and stability on the island & integrity of the single market,” he added.
Cables sent to EU capitals from Brussels in recent days suggest distrust is deepening. The Guardian newspaper Tuesday revealed details of the cables showing EU officials suspect Johnson is engaging in an exercise of brinkmanship to try to bounce the bloc into agreeing a free-trade deal to his liking and on terms unfavorable to the EU.
Johnson wants the EU to agree a tariff-free agreement similar, but more wide-ranging, to the one it has with Canada, which would mean Britain would not have to align with the bloc’s rules on competition policies, subsidies, state aid, social protection or the environment. He wants Britain to be free to diverge from EU regulations in order to strike new trade deals around the world.
But European officials say that would give Britain better terms than it enjoyed as an EU member and give British manufacturers and farmers a competitive edge over their continental rivals by lowering production costs and making their goods cheaper. If Britain departs from EU rules just on industrial emissions and pollution alone, it could save British industry about $5 billion dollars a year.
EU officials say Johnson is holding back on finding a compromise on key outstanding issues of fisheries, state aid, EU regulations and dispute resolution until the final moment in order to achieve an 11th-hour “trade off,” which he can present as a victory over EU intransigence. That, they say, is highly risky because the complexity of the issues does not lend them to easy and quick solutions in a mad final dash. “These points will not be easy to iron out with just a phone call between leaders,” a commission official has told EU diplomats. “It is leaving it too late.”
But mistrusts runs deep in the British parliament, too. Some uncompromising Brexiters in Johnson ruling Conservative party, who want a clean break from the EU, fear Johnson might be laying the ground to offer significant concessions to the EU to get a last-minute deal that he will trumpet as a great win. They worry he is engaging in a piece of highly staged theater that he can parade as diplomatic triumph.
Brexiters point to what happened last year when he repudiated the Withdrawal Agreement negotiated by his predecessor in Downing Street, Theresa May, only to sign an almost identical divorce deal after he was elected as her successor.
Some observers, though, hazard that Johnson may not have made up his own mind about whether Britain should go it alone without a trade deal or compromise. “My guess is that the really big decision government Brexiteers must take — between scary clean break and safety-first compromise — remains entirely unresolved because the prime minister’s mind cannot be read,” wrote commentator Matthew Parris, a former Conservative lawmaker, last week.