Just as the UK’s trade negotiations with the European Union look like they are going off a cliff, there is reason to believe that things may not be as bleak as they seem.
On the surface, the brinkmanship is clear: On Tuesday, the EU Boris Johnson dared to withdraw from the talks by October 15 if he thought a deal was impossible. The very next day, Johnson’s administration said it intended to do just that if it reached the conclusion.
Weeks followed in which testimony on both sides barely exceeded the need to keep trying, as the gap between them remains large. On Wednesday, EU Council President Charles Michel called on the United Kingdom to “put its cards on the table”.
In private, however, officials are more optimistic. While politics is inevitable – and potentially final – seasoned negotiators know that sometimes the worst moments come right before a deal is reached.
You remember Johnson’s phone call to Chancellor Angela Merkel in October 2019 which prompted a British government insider to point out that her intransigence made an agreement to leave the EU virtually impossible. One was made nine days later.
The two sides are now trying to reach an agreement not only on their future trade relationship, but also on a number of issues, from law enforcement cooperation to transport. If no agreement is reached by the UK’s exit from the EU internal market and the customs union on December 31, companies at the border will have to deal with tariffs, costs and disruptions.
Johnson has said if he doesn’t see a deal coming up by October 15, he’ll pull the plug so companies have time to prepare.
The EU, whose heads of state and government will be discussing Brexit at a summit on the same day, does not recognize this deadline and plans to continue talking for as long as possible.
Brussels officials, aware of the negotiations, propose to work out a detailed choreography in which, despite some remaining differences, both sides will find a way to continue the discussions into the second half of October.
The summit will simply be an inventory that will not stand in the way of negotiations.
EU negotiator Michel Barnier said at a meeting of European ambassadors on Wednesday that he did not expect Britain to leave on October 15, officials present said.
Meanwhile, his UK counterpart David Frost told a parliamentary committee that the negotiations have been constructive, even though “there are some really difficult things in them that have not yet been resolved”.
“I think that a deal is extremely achievable and could be achieved – but it’s also possible that we won’t get there and we have to see what the next few weeks bring,” said Frost at a hearing alongside Cabinet Secretary Michael Gove.
There are also signs that both sides are getting closer to overcoming some of the biggest barriers to an agreement: what rules to limit state aid must the UK follow and what access EU fishing boats have to UK waters.
Frost told lawmakers that the UK was ready to discuss terms for business grants that go beyond what “you normally do in a free trade agreement”.
And Barnier told the ambassadors meeting that member states should be ready to be more flexible with fish, an official said. France has worked hard to keep the bloc’s current access to British waters, which the Johnson administration said is unacceptable. For his part, Frost hinted that Britain might introduce new rules over time.
EU officials are also increasingly confident that Johnson is willing to continue to apply the principles of the European Convention on Human Rights – something the hardliners of his ruling Conservative party previously opposed.
Experienced officials in Brussels note that the mood around a negotiation is good when both sides start speaking the same language. Again, there are signs of progress.
After a phone call with Johnson on Wednesday afternoon, Michel tweeted: “The EU prefers a deal, but not at any price.”
Shortly afterwards, Gove was asked for his assessment. “We’re obviously very interested in getting a deal,” he said, “but we’re not going to make a deal at any price.”