Following their phone call today, Ursula von der Leyen and Boris Johnson confirmed that the protracted EU-UK future relationship negotiations will continue. Notably, in their brief joint statement, they did not give a new deadline. The implication is that either some measure of progress has recently been made, or that neither side is truly willing to call time on the negotiations and precipitate a No-Deal outcome on New Year’s Day.
The absence of yet another deadline at the moment gives the negotiators some additional breathing space. Reports indicate that they are working intensely – and they are fully aware of the stakes and the timetable. Not having to contend with a new short-term countdown could be helpful, and it may be a sign of positive developments. It has been suggested that solutions on the question of the level playing field could be emerging. A deal is still possible, for now, but time is short and the situation is dire.
The UK Government is responsible for this predicament. Its unrealistic demands, poor decisions and inflammatory rhetoric have all made it more difficult to conclude an agreement. The time available to negotiate was curtailed by its reckless choice to let the Brexit transition expire. The task of negotiating was made more difficult by its determination to create an unprecedented, distant relationship with the EU.
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Yet, even beyond the UK’s political theatre and disjointed policies, the issue of personnel is also a contributing factor in the current stalemate. The UK Government does not have significant experience in negotiating trade deals. As Irish Times political editor Denis Staunton and RTE Europe editor Tony Connelly have both highlighted in recent days, the indications are that this lack of experience has become manifest in the talks.
At this crucial moment in its history, the UK does not have the requisite capacity to manage the endgame of high-stakes trade negotiations. Through the European Commission, the European Union has, by contrast, some of the most experienced trade negotiators in the world. Michel Barnier is supported by the Commission’s Directorate-General for Trade, which is led by Sabine Weyand (who was former deputy chief negotiator for Brexit). One can only imagine the EU team’s exasperation at the state of its negotiating counterparts.
The core unresolved issue is a combination of the level playing field and governance (how the relationship will be managed in the future). Through the deal on the table, the EU is willing to provide the UK with significant access to the single market – unique for a third country. In exchange, and given the UK’s extensive links to the single market, the EU wants mechanisms to ensure consistent and fair competition and standards.
Because of the Brexit rhetoric and the UK Government’s manoeuvres on the Internal Market Bill, the EU is particularly concerned about the UK’s approach to standards and regulations in the future. This point is a deal-breaker for the EU. If the level playing field
cannot be adequately addressed, there will be no deal. We are left with hoping that Boris Johnson rejoins reality and allows compromises to be made to secure this agreement.
Brexit – the UK’s withdrawal from the EU and replacing its former membership with a new relationship (deal or no deal) – will eventually reach an endpoint. However, the EU and the UK will always have to relate to each other and manage their relationship, one way or another. Even if a deal is reached in the coming days, both sides may well have to negotiate on further issues for years to come.
While Westminster politics seems only to survive day-to-day, the EU is fully aware of the need to sustain some form of bilateral relations with the UK over the long-term. The European External Action Service, which conducts EU foreign policy, now has a directorate called “Western Europe, Western Balkans, Turkey and United Kingdom”. The EU will always look to build as positive and close a relationship with the UK as possible, while keeping to its principles and its values. Perhaps, one day, the UK may decide to reciprocate.
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For now, we witness Boris Johnson and his government pining for non-existent sovereignty windmills. Johnson feigns outrage at not being granted phone time to negotiate directly with Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron, despite knowing full well that every single EU member agreed to appoint Ursula von der Leyen and Michel Barnier as their negotiators. He threatens British naval gunboats against European fishing vessels. In truth, only Johnson and his government are floundering in the light of reality.
Claims of imperilled British sovereignty are a transparent veneer for this government’s serial incompetence on Brexit. EU membership never diminished the UK’s sovereignty – indeed, being in the EU arguably amplified it. Every EU member is a sovereign state, in a union of friendship and co-operation. To secure the deal on the table, which will only make the end of the transition less damaging, the UK will have to abandon its sovereignty windmills and face facts.
Anthony Salamone is managing director of European Merchants, the political analysis firm in Edinburgh