Britain’s Brexit boosterism masks slow progress in talks with EU

Boris Johnson’s government this week indulged in some trademark boosterism about the UK’s post-Brexit future. In addition to an upbeat advertising campaign urging people to prepare for exciting new opportunities (including extra red tape to trade with the continent and the need to buy health insurance to travel there), ministers set out new immigration and border rules for when standstill arrangements with the EU expire at the end of 2020. 

The message is unmistakable: Britain is moving on, and the future is bright. The same, however, cannot confidently be said about talks between the EU and the UK over their future relationship. 

There is so far nothing to show for the renewed impetus supposedly given by Mr Johnson’s virtual meeting with commission president Ursula von der Leyen last month. “I don’t see any meaningful movement from either side at the moment,” said Elvire Fabry, senior research fellow at the Jacques Delors Institute. Renewed face-to-face talks, which last week took place in London, have not noticeably improved matters.

For Mujtaba Rahman, managing director of the Eurasia political risk consultancy, “the most interesting thing is the absence . . . of press conferences where they slag each other off . . . on the level of atmospherics, mood music is better”. That does not amount to actual progress on substance, which Mr Rahman said it was “way too premature” to expect.

Mr Rahman puts the chances of a deal by the end of the year at just better than even. He says there is at least “an opportunity for a context to emerge where meaningful discussions on substance could happen”. 

A common reading of Mr Johnson’s political situation across Europe is that he will be under pressure to reach a deal and will therefore make concessions at the last minute. Last year he accepted his predecessor’s withdrawal agreement with only small tweaks to the arrangements for Northern Ireland. 

Ms Fabry pointed to the Conservative government’s new majority built with MPs from previous Labour strongholds, whose constituents would be particularly hurt by ending the transition with no free trade deal ready. Mr Rahman said a “big political driver” for change on the UK side is “not wanting to give [Labour leader] Keir Starmer that political ammunition”, especially after public disenchantment with the government’s handling of Covid-19.

Lack of trust, however, remains in the way of progress. EU negotiators have been frustrated in their attempts to pin down what state aid regime the UK wants to put in place after the end of the transition — perhaps because the UK government itself has not made up its mind. Europeans “don’t know what [the British] want with ‘Global Britain’”, said Ms Fabry, but they understand that “what matters most for Johnson is divergence” from the EU’s regulatory sphere.

Protecting the “level playing field” in its single market is the EU’s central priority, which has only risen in prominence as the bloc tackles the economic disruption caused by coronavirus. Also, “any concession given to the UK would have an immediate impact on other partnerships, in the first instance with Switzerland”, Ms Fabry said. 

But she added that if an agreement on the regulatory issue could be found, agreement on other issues such as fish — a purely transactional issue — could follow. Talks on data flows would be a good indicator of how far each side was willing to move, Ms Fabry suggested.

The EU’s view remains that the UK has more to lose so it will have to move eventually. However, the bloc is starting to face up to what no deal would mean. One EU official suggests the pandemic has taught useful lessons in how to deal with disruptions. The latest proposal for the bloc’s post-Covid-19 recovery fund includes €5bn to help the countries most exposed if no deal is concluded with Britain.

Ms Fabry was sceptical that all the regulatory issues would be resolved by year-end. Despite Mr Johnson’s urge to move on, she said: “This will go on for a long time.”


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