Boris Johnson spoke with the head of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, last week, ahead of the deadline to reach an agreement on the UK’s future relationship with the EU.
Thursday, October 15 was not only Boris Johnson’s personal deadline on which to reach a deal, but also the date on which the European Council – comprised of the heads of state of member governments of the EU27 – met to discuss the ongoing negotiations.
As negotiators prepared to “enter the tunnel” – the final phase of intense negotiations during which, it was hoped, a deal would be reached – it had been reported that there were still a number of outstanding demands on the UK side which had not been resolved. The most notable of these was the issue of fisheries, and who has access to UK waters post-Brexit.
Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister, held a call with von der Leyen and Charles Michel, the European Council President, the night before the EU meeting, on Wednesday. It was reported that Mr Johnson was willing to extend the deadline that he had previously set for the middle of October, to account for the lack of movement from both sides.
“There are still differences, with fisheries being the starkest. We need to get substance settled and not having a common text to work from has made progress doubly difficult,” said a UK Government spokesperson.
Following last week’s talks, however, Mr Johnson confirmed on Friday that an agreement had not yet been reached. As a result, the Prime Minister suggested that any further rounds of negotiations would be futile, and warned the country to prepare for a no-deal Brexit.
The second of two hurdles
The current negotiations are the second of two that have framed Britain’s thus-far lengthy departure from the Union.
The first set were to decide the legal texts which made up the Withdrawal Agreement, a first draft of which was reached in 2018. It took nearly 18 months, however, for the Withdrawal Agreement to be approved by the House of Commons after then Prime Minister, Theresa May had issues getting the agreement voted through.
It was passed by Johnson in January 2020 after securing a parliamentary majority at the 2019 General Election, paving the path for the UK to leave the bloc on January 31, 2020, after 47 years of membership.
Since March, however, the UK and the EU have been working together to decide the future trade and security relationship between the two parties. The transition period – the period in which the UK has time to negotiate a trade and security deal with its European neighbours – will end on December 31, 2020.
Therefore, from January 1, 2021, if the two countries are unable to secure a deal, the UK assumes third-country status. This leaves the UK in the same position as countries like the United States, Ethiopia and Saudi Arabia, none of whom have a free trade agreement (FTA) with the EU, and Great Britain will begin trading under (less favourable) World Trade Organisation rules.
It’s “up to the EU”
Several weeks ago, Johnson said it was “up to the EU” to finalise the trade deal between the two.
In response, the European Commission President, von der Leyen said: “Overall, where there is a will there is a way, so I think we should intensify the negotiations because it is worth working hard on it.”
At the end of the ninth round of negotiations at the beginning of October, the UK’s Chief Negotiator, Lord David Frost, said there was “very little time to resolve the issues”, whilst his European counterpart, Michel Barnier, claimed there were “persistent serious divergences”.
There continues to exist issues around state aid – money the government can provide to failing businesses – and, as mentioned, fisheries. Fisheries count for just 0.12% of the UK’s gross domestic product.
The remaining issues were compounded by the Government’s passing of the Internal Market Bill in the House of Commons, to which some on the European side have expressed concern. The Union has even gone as far to launch (separate) legal proceedings against the UK in the event that it reneges on its treaty obligations set out in the Withdrawal Agreement.
“They’ve done a deal with Canada of a kind that we want, why shouldn’t they do it with us?” added Mr Johnson.
The EU-Canada FTA took more than seven years to negotiate, and still requires further ratification from regional and national European parliaments. After dragging its feet over the Withdrawal Agreement, the UK has given the EU just nine months.
Could France be the solution?
Ahead of his call with European officials, Johnson was reportedly told by Lord Frost that a deal with the European Union was still entirely possible, and it has been suggested that this may be achieved by the next EU summit on November 15.
It is the French Government that has reportedly been a blocker over the agreement on fisheries.
The Guardian reported last week that the French EU Affairs Minister has warned President Emmanuel Macron that the status quo must be maintained between Britain and its neighbours. French fishermen in the north of France rely on access to British waters, where they’ve fished for decades.
In Germany, meanwhile, Chancellor Angela Merkel suggested that the EU must get “realistic” in its negotiations, adding that any deal must be “in British interests as well as the interests of the 27-member EU”.
Indeed, it was on Thursday that EU leaders discussed the ongoing negotiations with Michel Barnier. But despite the best intentions of those involved, a deal was not reached.
On Friday, Boris Johnson warned businesses to prepare for a no-deal scenario come January, and that further negotiations with the EU would not be productive without a “fundamental change” in Brussels’ position.
Despite the hardened rhetoric on Friday, come Sunday, government ministers warned that Number 10’s door was “ajar”, suggesting there is still time for an agreement to be reached. It is reported that Michel Barnier will speak to David Frost on Monday, October 19, to agree the structure of any further discussions.
The clock is ticking
The legal deadline to agree a deal — December 31, 2020 — is rapidly approaching, and concessions appear to have already been made. The UK has reportedly agreed to a review mechanism to oversee state aid, something that will be administered by an independent regulator.
After Johnson and other Brexiteers previously promised a close relationship with Brussels, it is the next few weeks that will set out the UK’s future relationship with its closest neighbours for the foreseeable future, and see whether the duo can turn around the poor outcome of last week.
Boris Johnson will likely still face a number of challenges. The tough final stages of the talks came in the same week that a poll reported all-time high support for Scottish independence, and as First Minister Mark Drakeford sought to restrict travel to Wales from virus-hit areas of England.
Perhaps his biggest challenge, however, will be deciding exactly what kind of relationship the country wants with the EU. Is it Swiss-style? Canada++? An Australia-style deal (though Australia doesn’t have a FTA with the EU)?
Only one thing is clear at the moment: there is currently no deal.twitter Follow @gairrhyddpol for all of the latest updates from the world of politics. Politics Morgan Perry