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Artillery Row

Breaking the UK-EU deadlock

The big concession to get talks moving is about to be made over the heads of Barnier and Frost

“Progress has remained limited but our talks have been positive in tone” was the best that David Frost, the prime minister’s lead negotiator with the EU, could offer by way of public reassurance. His opposite number, Michel Barnier, was more brutal, “my responsibility is to speak to truth and, to tell the truth, this week there have been no significant areas of progress.” Indeed, with Barnier accusing the British of “backsliding” on the Political Agreement, the reality is that the fourth round of UK-EU negotiations concluded on Friday morning without the tinkling of cascading pebbles, let alone the crashing of falling rocks. There has been no breakthrough.

Back in February, the British government was clear that the traditional mode of Brussels deal-making (prolonged deadlock followed by brinkmanship-style agreement at the eleventh hour) was not how the long march to a UK-EU trade deal would conclude. Businesses and governments needed time to prepare for a deal – or without one, WTO terms. Leaving the conclusion of the negotiations to the last days of the year was therefore not viable, given that the transition period ends on 31 December. We were led to believe that if there were no meaningful signs of progress towards a deal by June then the Brits would walk away and prepare for WTO.

Well, it is June. So why are we still talking rather than walking? Among the subjects on the agenda of the last four days of video-conferencing have been law enforcement cooperation, the level playing field, trade and investment services and energy. In none of these areas have (virtual) hands been shaken and (virtual) backs been slapped. The same is true about fisheries, the subject accorded the largest number of sessions in this week’s round. As recently as last week, when David Frost appeared before EU select committees of the Lords and Commons, we were being encouraged to believe that on fish, at least, the EU was ready to come down from its opening position (the UK must remain in the Common Fisheries Policy) and move closer to replicating the sort of deal it found fit to conclude with Norway.

Briefing lobby journalists after Friday morning’s concluding plenary session, a senior official with the UK negotiating team clarified what we long suspected. June is not, after all, when the prospects for a deal will be weighed in the balance. “I don’t think there is a specific date and I don’t think there ever has been,” said the official. “For us, we have got to have a sense that there is a genuine process capable of producing an agreement. If we talk in July and we are making good progress but we maybe haven’t got everything over the line by the end of July, then that’s a completely different situation to talking in July and absolutely nothing happens.”

So, June is not the decision time after all, and July might also not be if it looks like a deal is within reach. But, confided the official, “what we can’t have is a situation that drags out into the autumn” if there has been no real indication that minds have met. Although coronavirus has delayed the process “a little” the official did not give the impression that it was really germane to the state of play. We are still assured that the UK will neither ask for, nor accede to, a prolongation of the transition period.

June is not, after all, when the prospects for a deal will be weighed in the balance

A fair-minded bystander might wonder what movement there can be in July that there wasn’t in June or in any of the sessions before then, given that neither side has conceded on the fundamental point of principle – should EU law, interpreted by the European Court of Justice, continue to regulate widely over the UK in return for a free trade deal or is that a demand that is the negation of Brexit itself?

The Frost-Barnier talks are locked in irresolution on this issue. And because the sticking point is a fundamental matter of theology it is for neither team to commit blasphemy without their higher priest assuring them that such an act is permissible after all.

For its part, the UK has promised not to go behind the back of Team Barnier by seeking to persuade the governments of EU member states of the need to get Brussels’ negotiator to lighten-up. But Boris Johnson can – and now will – seek a “high-level meeting” (in reality a high-level videocall) with the president of the EU Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Council, Charles Michel, and also the president of the EU parliament, David Sassoli. No date for this summit has been agreed, but it surely must come by July.

In his previous public statements about Brexit and future relations with the UK, Sassoli, an Italian centre-left politician, has shown no trace of the unbridled contempt for Brexiteers displayed by some other prominent European parliamentarians like Guy Verhofstadt. Sassoli has spoken, very reasonably, of the “wound” to the EU of losing the UK, whilst insisting that friendship will endure. But the critical attitudes will be those of Charles Michel and Ursula von der Leyen. Neither are minded to roll over before the main course is served. So if Boris Johnson wants to get them to shift Barnier’s parameters for negotiation, he will have to offer a significant inducement.

We continue to be assured that this will not be a simple horse-trade, for example the capitulation by one side on fisheries in return for the other side giving-up on the level-playing field. But Brexiteers should steal themselves for Johnson making a bold offer nonetheless. On current form, momentum is not going to emerge organically from Frost-Barnier video-conferences. New orders need to be issued to them. What can Boris safely propose?

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