It was a dinner that was supposed to give ‘a political boost’ to a post-Brexit trade deal, but Boris Johnson came out of a sorry three hours of talks with Ursula von der Leyen in Brussels with a British official simply muttering: ‘No deal “.
The omens were bad from the start; From the moment Mrs von der Leyen, the President of the European Commission, on Wednesday evening instructed Mr Johnson, the British Prime Minister, to put on his face mask, it was clear that this was going to be a delicate meeting.
Photo call highlighted the clash of political cultures: Mr Johnson, the champion of British sovereignty, in baggy suit, hair askew, alongside the elegant figures of Ms von der Leyen and her chief negotiator Michel Barnier, defenders order based on EU rules.
The pleasant scallop and turbot menu – a not-too-subtle nod to the dispute over post-Brexit fishing access to UK waters – seemed less fun as the evening wore on.
UK officials say Mr Johnson traveled to Brussels hoping to find a compromise in talks that stalled on fair competition ‘a level playing field’ and fishing rights, but were unsuccessful to nothing. “They didn’t really respond at all,” lamented one person briefed on the dinner.
A senior EU diplomat directly briefed on the dinner said Mr Johnson had shown no obvious desire to reach a deal, replicating old proposals that failed to meet basic EU single market principles .
“It was described as an almost apathetic performance – the overall clear impression from the British Prime Minister was that he was not going to compromise because it would be politically too costly,” the diplomat said.
Two officials briefed on the talks said Mr Johnson and Ms von der Leyen – neither of whom are known to understand the details of the negotiation – did not engage in a private one-on-one discussion. Mr Barnier and his British counterpart David Frost were in the room everywhere.
The result was a dead end. Some British officials criticized in vitriolic terms Mr Barnier and Ms von der Leyen’s refusal to budge and the tension was quickly relayed to the media and diplomats.
The general conclusion, as dawn broke in Brussels and London on Thursday, was that Britain’s post-Brexit transition period will end in an acrimonious divorce, with no trade deal in place. Irish Prime Minister Micheál Martin admitted the situation was “very difficult”, while Mr Johnson then warned people to prepare for the “strong possibility” of a no-deal Brexit.
Despite the gloom, there were glimmers of hope that a deal could still be saved – not least because both sides want a deal and Lord Frost and Mr Barnier have been tasked with continuing to speak in Brussels.
Downing Street said: “The Prime Minister does not want to leave any route to a possible untested deal.” The two sides would take stock on Sunday to see if there was a point in continuing the talks.
The fishing issue is mainly a bargain: the number of years that EU boats would be guaranteed continuous access to UK waters and the amount of fish they can catch. Both sides believe the problem can be solved.
The main sticking point remains the EU’s insistence on an ‘evolutionary mechanism’ to ensure that Britain does not undermine the European regulatory model in the future, by gaining a competitive advantage.
The EU insists that if the UK fails to reflect improved regulations on the continent in the future, it should have the right to impose punitive tariffs. Mr Johnson sees this plan as an unacceptable attack on British sovereignty.
But if Mr Johnson rejected a deal on these grounds, the economic rationale would be far from clear.
Mr Johnson appears willing – in a no-deal scenario – to agree to economically damaging tariffs in just three weeks to avoid the theoretical risk of punitive tariffs on certain goods in theoretical circumstances at some point in the market. future.
Jonathan Jones, former head of the government’s legal department, argued Mr Johnson’s argument that Brexit was about regaining sovereignty was also wrong.
“The ‘sovereignty’ argument is stupid,” he tweeted. “It is sovereignty that gives the UK the power to make a trade deal (or not to). The question is, what is the balance between benefits and obligations? If the UK is not prepared to accept ANY obligation, well. . . “
The evolution mechanism would allow both parties to agree on updating the standards. Either party, as a last resort, could restrict access to its market if it could prove that equality of opportunity was no longer guaranteed.
Mr Johnson’s allies believed they had reached an agreement last week on the issue but say Emmanuel Macron, President of France, insisted last Thursday on a stricter mechanism; UK officials said he would set a “very low bar” for retaliatory tariffs. They want to reset the bargaining clock to the start of last week.
While the European side insists it has not made any new demands, Mr Johnson’s aides argue the new proposal is too prescriptive, undermining the country’s sovereign right to design its own regulations and allowing Brussels to “strike us unilaterally” without having to prove “a high level of damage”.
Mr Johnson specifically criticized the “automatic” nature of such a mechanism, seen by some in Brussels as an indication that he might be ready to agree to a compromise including some sort of arbitration mechanism.
But as EU leaders gathered in Brussels for their quarterly summit on Thursday, a high-level EU diplomat said the mood – as in Downing Street – was increasingly resigned to a ” disagree”.
“There is frankly a lack of confidence, a lack of energy and a lack of commitment to reach an agreement,” the diplomat said. “We are deep in our mandate and the aspects of that mandate that protect the EU’s internal market that we will not let go – we cannot ruin the EU. So what can we do? ”