Andrew Grice / Nov 2020
After another round of talks in Brussels this week, negotiations on an EU-UK trade deal are due to resume in London on Sunday. To say that time is running out has become a well-worn cliché but this time it really is true, as the EU’s 16 November deadline looms.
Not for the first time, both sides are trying to use Michel Barnier’s ticking clock to their advantage. UK officials describe time as “our biggest enemy” but Brussels insiders believe it is Boris Johnson who is running down the clock to put pressure on the EU ahead of a deadline that might yet need to be stretched.
Although there have been many crucial weeks, the next 10 days does feel like the make or break period. A coincidence of timing, with the US presidential election, added another dimension to this week’s sessions. EU officials suspected that Johnson was waiting to see whether Donald Trump or Joe Biden emerged as the winner before making his final call on whether to do an EU deal. The EU wanted to carry on talking in Brussels this week rather than pause the negotiations for four days. The charge is dismissed as “tosh” by Johnson allies, who insist the Prime Minister’s main preoccupation will be landing a good deal for the UK he could “sell” to his domestic audience.
But if, as expected, Biden does see off Trump, that would give Johnson an incentive to reach an EU agreement. While Trump would be relaxed about no deal, Biden would not be. He is proud of his Irish roots and reacted angrily in September when Johnson threatened to override the Northern Ireland Protocol in last year’s Withdrawal Agreement, warning there would be no US-UK trade deal if the Good Friday Agreement was undermined. A dispute with an incoming President he does not know, and with whom he wants to forge a good working relationship, would hardly be top of Johnson’s wish list.
But a Biden victory would not guarantee an EU deal. Johnson’s domestic calculations have changed in recent weeks. His relations with his Conservative MPs have sunk to a dangerous new low; many are appalled by his handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Fifty rebelled on Wednesday when the Commons approved a four-week lockdown in England because they fear the economic impact. Many of the rebels are ardent Brexiteers, including Iain Duncan Smith, the former Tory leader. With hardline Eurosceptics preparing to denounce any UK concessions to the EU as “a betrayal of British sovereignty,” could Johnson afford to upset his backbench troops again?
There are countervailing pressures. His ministers believe Johnson needs the political success of an EU deal to lighten the gloom of coronavirus in what will be a bleak political winter. A deal on fisheries that helped Scottish fishermen would also help the Tories in next May’s Scottish Parliament elections, when the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon will seek a mandate for a second independence referendum. Johnson does not want to see Brexit blamed for the break up of the UK.
Ministers insist Johnson still wants a deal, while borrowing the EU’s language by adding “not at any price.” In Whitehall the expectation is for an agreement, though no one can be certain Barnier and his UK counterpart David Frost will be able to map out the necessary choreography -- notably on who “jumps first” or whether they can “jump together.”
Insiders in both camps say progress has been made in the past two weeks, for example on the thorny issue of the UK’s state aid regime. But problems remain on environmental and labour standards, with the UK so far not giving the EU a strong enough commitment about its future actions. An agreement on governance is closer but the UK is opposing a cross-cutting dispute mechanism allowing the suspension of one part of the agreement amid a dispute in another.
These circles can probably be squared, leaving fisheries as the biggest stumbling block. Reports of a breakthrough proved premature but a phased reduction of EU quotas in UK waters offers a possible path to a deal.
Despite their “not at any price” rhetoric, both sides know the price of failure would also be high, especially while governments and businesses across Europe struggle to turn back the second coronavirus wave.