After years of confusion and ambiguity, the tumultuous Brexit process could really be in its final week, as several loose threads are tied together in the coming days.
Boris Johnson, the British Prime Minister, and Ursula Von Der Leyen, the president of the EU Commission, had a crucial phone call on Saturday evening, after talks between the negotiating teams hit a brick wall last week.
The two sides have been trying to agree on a trade deal before the standstill “transition period” ends on December 31. However, talks have been deadlocked for months over three key issues and the negotiating teams have as good as run out of wiggle room within their mandates, which are given to them by their respective political leadership – hence the call between Johnson and Von Der Leyen over the weekend.
Why is this week so important?
While both sides refuse to commit to a deadline for talks to conclude one way or another, several crucial issues will collide this week, creating a logical end point. On Monday, the two negotiating teams met in Brussels for an intensive day of negotiations.
Johnson and Von Der Leyen spoke on a call on Monday evening, and agreed that the conditions for finalizing an agreement were not there “due to the remaining significant differences on three critical issues: level playing field, governance and fisheries,” according to a joint statement they issued afterward.
They have asked their negotiators to prepare an overview of the remaining differences to be discussed in an in-person meeting in Brussels in the coming days, the statement said.
Meanwhile, Johnson’s government said in a statement that it was committed to implementing the Northern Ireland Protocol – a crucial part of the agreement – and that the government would be prepared to remove certain clauses of the Internal Market Bill and ensure it complies with international law.
The British government had admitted that the bill would allow the UK to tweak domestic law in a way, which would breach the Northern Ireland Protocol and potentially overwrite parts of the Brexit deal Johnson agreed to with Brussels last year. The EU has launched legal proceedings against the UK. The protocol was agreed in order to prevent a hard border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland in the event of no deal.
Talks will continue on Tuesday and Wednesday, perhaps with more calls between Johnson and Von Der Leyen nudging their negotiators towards reaching a deal. The hope is this can be achieved by close of play Wednesday at the latest, as the final summit of EU leaders for 2020 takes place on Thursday. This is believed to be the last scheduled chance for the leader of the 27 EU member states to approve any agreement between the two negotiating teams.
While a deal is within touching distance and, with the assistance of the EU and UK political leadership, two days could be ample to bridge the current gaps, the EU will need to keep an eye on what is happening in the UK parliament, as the Internal Market Bill faces a crucial vote on Wednesday evening.
The UK maintains that the law-breaking measures would only be used in the event of no-deal and should not hamper attempts to reach a deal.
What is left to be decided?
Accounts differ as to how close a deal is, however consensus is that if the three remaining sticking points can be bridged then the rest of the deal is more or less good to go. However, the EU has long maintained that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.
A senior UK government source told lobby journalists on Monday that there has been “no tangible progress” on Brexit talks since Friday.
“Whilst we do not consider this process to be closed, things are looking very tricky and there’s every chance we are not going to get there.”
The three areas of disagreement are on fishing, the UK’s ability to diverge on EU standards and legal oversight of any deal.
On fishing, the UK is demanding that Brussels fully respects that, having left the EU, has total control of its fishing waters. This is a serious concern for European fisheries and has become a serious red line for French President Emmanuel Macron, who appears willing to veto the whole deal if a compromise is not reached that allows French vessels to fish in British waters.
On standards, the UK has for months objected to Brussels’ demands for a level playing field which would tie Britain to close alignment with the EU on regulations and standards. The major area of contention is on how the UK would be able to use state aid in order to give British business a competitive edge over European companies. The EU maintains that level playing fields are entirely normal in most trade deals.
On legal oversight, the UK is extremely wary of any agreement which could result in the European Court of Justice being seen to have any involvement in British domestic law. A disdain for European courts had been a cornerstone of Britain’s Euroskeptic movement pre-Brexit.
Despite the drama, it is likely that we won’t hear much until the talks are over. Both sides are being extremely cautious with what they will say in public. However, if the gaps are bridged, things will suddenly move very quickly and it’s entirely possible a deal could reach the EU summit for Thursday.
It’s equally possible that if the differences are insurmountable, Thursday is the day both sides down tools and prepare for no deal. And at that point, Boris Johnson would have to make difficult decisions that could do irreparable damage to the UK’s international reputation.