The UK and European Union have now either started their ultimate bluffing session before reaching a last-minute compromise on their future relationship, or the inexorable decline towards the no-deal Brexit that both sides have seen since the UK The country’s membership had promised to avoid a 2016 referendum.
A summit meeting of the heads of state and government of the EU on Thursday strictly noticed that “progress on key issues of interest to the Union [was] still not sufficient to reach an agreement ”and urged the UK to“ take the necessary steps to reach an agreement ”.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson at the time replied on Friday that the EU “refused to negotiate seriously” and said the UK would prepare for deals with its largest trading partner starting January 1 next year, when the country’s so-called transition period would be “more like Australia” from the union expires.
Translation from the two-day drama: Things continue as usual, albeit with increased rhetoric and now tighter deadlines.
Johnson’s BBC interview was about what he didn’t say: After warning two weeks ago that if no progress had been made before the EU summit, he would abandon longstanding trade talks, Johnson is actually ready to speak continue although there is no progress. His intended threat of a no-deal Brexit went hand in hand with the reservation, which was repeated three times in the six-minute interview, that it would only happen “if no fundamental change in approach is discernible on the EU side”.
For its part, the EU had urged the UK to continue speaking and instructed its main negotiator, Michel Barnier, to do what he has been doing for months. And Barnier indeed said he would be in London next week to do just that, at a meeting with his counterpart, British Brexit negotiator David Frost.
Talk about That will be the real question. The no-deal scenario is consistently referred to by Johnson and other UK government ministers as the “Australian” option, which means that the UK would simply trade with the EU under the very basic and more costly rules of the World Trade Organization. However, this seems to be ignoring the fact that Australia has a number of other agreements and bilateral agreements with the EU – which it finds so unsatisfactory that it had proper free trade negotiations with the Union two years ago.
In any case, Barnier is unlikely to return to London to talk about the wine trade or mutual sharing of passenger data – issues covered in two of the current agreements between the EU and Australia.
The UK-EU “Comprehensive Trade Agreement”, which both sides swear they want to sign, will again depend on whether or not European fishermen can continue to haul in UK waters. What guarantees will the UK give the EU for this? You will not be dealing with any environmental or social regulation, and the assurances the two sides give each other that the disputes will be handled in good faith and with the strictest legality.
What has been surprising over the past two days is that the official tone of the EU leaders and Johnson was more dramatic than the optimistic noises emitted by the negotiating teams on the two sides in the preceding days. This suggests that the rhetoric approach is more political than technical and that eventually a deal might be in sight once everyone has taken the final stance.