The frenetic final hours that broke the Brexit deadlock

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Exhausted negotiators finally unblock the deal that will define the future of the £ 660bn UK-EU trade relationship after a wave of last-minute negotiations over insignificant fishing rights of this amount.

The final kilometers of the marathon negotiations, which began in March in the shadow of the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic in Europe, were largely devoted to finding painful compromises on EU fishing quotas in British waters.

In a chaotic context of travel bans induced by the virus trucks stuck in queues stretching for miles and Britain cut off from the continent, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen took practical control talks.

The final hours of negotiations revolved around the fate of a fraction of the Existing EU fishing quota rights, with an estimated value of 650 million euros per year.

“The fish spreadsheets are even less interesting than they look,” sighs an exhausted team member, as the discussions drag on beyond lunch time the day before. of Christmas. “We all want to go home but the champagne is on ice.”

On the edge

Less than a month ago, the prospects for a deal looked much bleaker. Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, and his British counterpart David Frost had just called for a break after tense talks in London, telling their political leaders on December 4 that the negotiations were deadlocked.

As Mr Barnier and his team entered St Pancras station the next morning to bring the first Eurostar back to Brussels, the talks entered a period of crisis which brought negotiations to the brink of collapse.

The crucial sticking point at this point in the talks was on an issue that had troubled the negotiations from the very beginning: how to meet the EU’s demands for a level playing field that would protect its companies from unfair competition.

Mr Johnson insisted from the outset that his Taskforce Europe trade team – made up of around 100 officials – could not give ground on one central principle: Britain would not accept the right to EU as the price of a free trade agreement.

UK officials say this target was met as early as July after Mr Barnier agreed to restructure the EU’s demands so as to remove any direct reference to EU regulations and any role for the European Court of Justice .

But negotiators have remained stuck on central questions of how to enforce any fair competition agreement and how to respond to demands from EU leaders, such as French President Emmanuel Macron, that any “ground of equal play ”must last over time.

Leaders try to break the deadlock

On December 5 – a day after the two chief negotiators admitted the talks were stalled – Mr Johnson and Ms von der Leyen held what would be the first of many talks that would define the course of the final phase of negotiations.

Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, welcomes British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on her arrival in Brussels for a dinner to discuss the progress of the negotiations © Aaron Chown / AP

The European side had pushed for a “mechanism” that would allow either side to sound the alarm if it felt that differences in regulations – for example in environmental law – had placed its businesses in an unfair situation.

According to the proposal, the disadvantaged side would have the right to impose tariffs – unilateral “lightning tariffs” according to Downing Street insiders – if consultations fail.

Dinner in Brussels does not allow you to break through

An ally of Mr Johnson said the move would have destabilized UK-EU relations for years to come, forcing Britain to mirror Brussels rules or face punitive sanctions for the most fragile patterns.

The dispute was at the heart of Mr Johnson and Ms von der Leyen’s contacts in early December – a dialogue which led the two leaders to agree to meet in Brussels for dinner on December 9 in a bid to break the impasse .

However, any hope that a face-to-face meeting over sorbet and coconut sorbet would help melt the ice that was gripping trade talks quickly dissolved.

In the sterile environment of the European Commission headquarters in Berlaymont, Mrs von der Leyen and Mr Johnson failed to find a way. Flanked by their negotiators, dinner – preceded by a photo call – remained strictly formal.

The next day the Prime Minister told the British that there was “A strong possibility” discussions would fail. Ms von der Leyen sent a similar message to EU leaders at a summit in Brussels.

But amid the gloom and the sound of sabers, there were signs that both sides still urgently wanted a deal.

Crisis defused

Lord Frost and Oliver Lewis, Mr Johnson’s EU adviser, have spent days working on alternative proposals to allow the UK to retain its freedom to set its own rules while giving the EU the comfort that she might retaliate if things got too far.

“This is something we were probably happiest about – it was quite unique in trade deals,” a UK official said. Their key partner in these discussions was Stephanie Riso, senior advisor to Ms von der Leyen and veteran of the EU-UK Divorce Treaty negotiations. “With Steph, there was a real discussion,” said the manager.

Meanwhile, Mr Johnson prepared to call the new mechanism a ‘freedom clause’ to reassure worried Tory MPs that Britain would have regulatory autonomy, although it could come at a cost in terms of access. to the EU market.

In a brief phone call at noon on Sunday, December 13, Ms von der Leyen and Mr Johnson defused the crisis on a level playing field, acknowledging the progress made and agreeing to allow their negotiators to continue talking – preparing the field for the last frantic weeks of talks in Brussels.

The next day, Mr Barnier told EU ambassadors that Britain has now accepted the principle of the level playing field mechanism, provided enough safeguards are built in to prevent the EU from hitting British products. with tariffs for spurious reasons.

Lord Frost, right, and Tim Barrow, the UK's permanent representative to the EU, leave the UK consulate in Brussels last week
Lord Frost, right, and Tim Barrow, the UK’s permanent representative to the EU, left the British consulate in Brussels last week © Geert Vanden Wijngaert / Bloomberg

From a British point of view, the compromise included important changes: it would include an arbitration system, eliminate the threat of “automatic” sanctions and contain other safeguards against abuse. But the European side has always believed that it provided them with the security they needed.

Still stuck fishing

Fishing, however, remained a seemingly intractable problem until the end. British negotiators admit they underestimated the EU’s determination to stick to its position on fish – an issue that lurked during the negotiations until the last hour and was of utmost importance to Mr. Macron.

Even at the start of this week, Britain and the EU remained very distant from the fate of the bloc’s current fishing rights in British waters.

Negotiations focused on a transitional period that would guarantee the EU fleet access to UK waters for a limited period, and the extent to which EU fishing quotas would be reduced during this period.

As late as Tuesday, Mr Barnier called the British offers unacceptable.

Mr Johnson has held numerous calls with Ms von der Leyen at the end of the negotiations. “They weren’t straightforward calls – they talked a lot and they were very forthright at the end,” one person said on the call.

UK officials insist a deal hung “in the balance” until around noon Wednesday. “Just when you were getting optimistic they would always throw something else on the table,” said an ally of Boris Johnson.

Issues other than fish also threatened to destabilize the final stages, including EU demands that the UK resisted for cross-retaliatory powers that would have allowed Brussels to strike other UK sectors – such as the UK. car exports – if a fishing dispute got out of hand.

The penultimate day of talks featured an eclectic mix of fish and cars. Britain has made a last-minute push on trade terms for electric car parts – a crucial issue for Japanese automakers Nissan and Toyota with major UK-based operations. Once this problem was solved and progress on fish obtained, an agreement appeared.

When Mr Johnson summoned his cabinet to outline the deal on Wednesday night, a rare Christmas mood of optimism was in the air after a year in which the PM was battered by the Covid-19 crisis .

“The prime minister insisted that the deal delivered what was in the manifesto – that we take back control,” said a participant in the call.

“ Leave Brexit behind ”

EU officials said negotiators had been kept abreast until Wednesday evening with the task of tweaking the adjustments to fishing rights. An overnight pizza delivery to the European Commission headquarters in Brussels signaled the long working hours ahead.

Work continued into Thursday afternoon as exhausted officials engaged in the highly technical task of recalibrating quotas.

Establishing fishing rights in waters near the UK coast, rich in lucrative species such as scallops, was a big part of the effort overnight, those involved in the negotiations said.

Diplomats on both sides blamed the other for repeated delays in the possibility of announcing a deal – with allegations the European side made a mistake in its calculations, demanding revised figures, and that the UK Uni had called for late changes to the agreement.

But an official close to the talks said on Thursday that the challenge of calibrating quotas was just “pretty darn hard.”

On Thursday afternoon, the two sides were finally able to confirm that a grueling negotiation was over.

Ms von der Leyen said the deal left her “quiet satisfaction and, frankly, relief”.

“We can finally put Brexit behind us,” she said. “Europe continues to progress.”


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