When EU and UK trade negotiators first met in Brussels on a rainy day in early March, the impact of coronavirus was largely limited to extra bottles of hand sanitiser on desks in the conference centre. But two months on, the pandemic has changed the political assumptions underpinning the next seven months of Brexit negotiations – if not the parties’ public positions.
This week, negotiations are back again, with around 200 officials logging on to videoconference with each other about the finer points of EU-UK trade. But despite the limited time available to conclude a deal, it took weeks to agree to go ahead with remote talks – with two planned “rounds” cancelled in the meantime.
There has been some dispute about what the hold-up on starting videoconferencing was. Some reports had suggested that the European Commission side was more sceptical that going online could replace in-the-room negotiations. But one EU official insists that “it was the exact opposite”.
“Actually it was the UK, they were not so sure about the process of doing so and the security of it,” they told The Independent. The dispute over how things went down will be familiar to anyone who has been following Brexit talks since the beginning.
Whoever held things up, both sides eventually settled on using WebEx, an enterprise-grade videoconferencing suite produced by software company Cisco with more robust security than commercial-grade apps like Zoom and Skype.
One UK source close to the talks says videoconferencing has turned out to be “basically OK” and even suggested it had been “more efficient” in some respects.
“When you’re doing a real round [in person] you have to keep large numbers of people hanging around for their bit of the discussions,” they said, noting that this wasn’t true online. Both sides are also keen to stress that they made use of the time that would have been taken up with the cancelled negotiations by exchanging legal texts, which helped to clarify each others’ views.
But even those positive about videoconferencing admit it is “difficult to replicate the atmospherics” of face-to-face negotiations. In international negotiations of all kinds what is often called “corridor diplomacy” plays a big role: outside structured talks there is more room for flexibility and possibly candour. That hasn’t materialised.
“You either have it or you don’t,” one Brussels official says. “You can try and replicate it, sure, but it’s not the same and it can’t be the same until we can go back to negotiating face to face.
“You need to be in a room with people to negotiate and don’t forget, it’s not just both sides behind a screen but everyone is individually behind a screen in their own homes, so it’s even difficult for each side to talk to each other.”
“We’re all doing it,” says Sam Lowe, a senior research fellow and trade expert at the Centre for European Reform. “We all know what the limitations are when it comes to teleconferencing. You lose all of the informal interaction. Just by personalities interacting you get a much better grasp of the person you’re talking to.
“And you can have chats about normal things as well and it just builds up a better working relationship: the problem with formal videoconferences is there’s no time for just talking about ‘how are the kids’? Those sorts of conversations actually create a better atmosphere.”
Perhaps post-work Zoom drinks could break the deadlock? “We haven’t planned anything like that – yet,” the UK source says.
Slightly frostier negotiations at a technical level may not end up being the biggest problem that coronavirus has caused, however. The policy sticking points between the two sides are well known and acknowledged by both teams: on fishing, the level playing field for regulations, a role for the European Court of Justice, adherence to the European Convention on Human Rights, and governance of the deal.
All of these are big political issues: negotiators sitting down and going through the minutia can only make so much progress – whether they are friends or not. Observers of the talks say political calls have to be made, and they have to be made by politicians.
This is a more significant effect of the pandemic. The British government does not have the political bandwidth to make calls on Brexit at the moment: the focus in Westminster, as in all national capitals, is resolutely on dealing with the Covid-19 outbreak. It’s just that most other national capitals haven’t decided to totally reorder their relationship with their neighbours at precisely the same time as the pandemic, or staked their political reputation on sticking to a rigid timetable.
“The top of government just isn’t focused on the talks right now – rightly so – they’re dealing with the pandemic and the fallout; Boris Johnson’s been unwell,” says Mr Lowe.
“So we have this issue with the negotiations where all the actual decisions that need to be taken in order to conclude the free trade agreement on issues such as state aid, level playing field, role of the court of justice – are big, political, meaty issues. They’re not technical issues.
“They’re not somewhere where David Frost and his negotiators can just find some clever tweaks and you’ve done it, these are big political decisions that require a change of course from the UK.
“We’re not in a place where we’re even thinking about that. In order to get to a point where you can make those compromises you have to go through a lot of political theatre, I think, and at the moment everyone’s focused on Covid-19. Which is fine.”
For the country to even have the political headspace to debate these questions, the political situation in the UK would have to return to something like last year, with Brexit dominating the airwaves. As it is, the UK government has been candid that it has redeployed 47 officials from Brexit duties to fighting fires elsewhere in government because of the pandemic.
With this in mind, it’s notable that both sides agree coronavirus hasn’t really changed anyone’s mind about anything – at least officially. Instead of blowing a wind of disruption through the parties’ positions, they’ve effectively been put in the deep freeze, to be acted out by negotiators going through the motions while the politicians deal with something else.
“The approaches are more or less the same,” says one EU official. “I wouldn’t think they’ve changed radically because of coronavirus, no.”
A UK government source close to talks agrees: “I don’t think the crisis makes any difference to it, to be honest. I do sense that Barnier himself would like to get a deal and I sensed that before the crisis started.”
But British officials are aware that big political calls need to be made, and that the prime minister and his cabinet will have to get their hands dirty eventually.
“He will at some point need to get involved,” the UK government source says. “I don’t think we’re at that point yet. He needs to get involved when we are settling or dealing with the most sensitive political aspects of this negotiation.”
The source speculates that the prime minister might rear his head on Brexit in the run-up to the “stock take” scheduled for mid-June, where the decision on an extension on the transition period will need to be made and Boris Johnson will sit down with European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen – probably by video conference.
“In the run-up to that he would, I imagine, want to be involved in shaping the context for that,” the UK source adds, describing it as a political “waypoint”.
The question of an extension is a vexed one. Under the agreement signed by Boris Johnson, the transition period can be extended by up to two years, but the extension must be agreed in June, to give businesses on both sides of the channel time to prepare for the actual cliff edge in December.
Boris Johnson has point-blank refused to consider a further delay, despite writing the ability to extend in his agreement. While the extension clause was originally agreed by Theresa May, the EU insists the new prime minister’s team went through things “line-by-line” and kept it in there. The government’s position is thus raising a few eyebrows across the continent.
How coronavirus affects the question of an extension is politically complicated. A simple reading is that a pandemic is exactly the kind of reasonable excuse for a delay a pragmatic government, seeing talks stuck, might be searching for. Poll after poll has shown the public firmly supportive of and totally understanding of an extension, given the pandemic situation: the latest survey from pollster Focaldata has 66 per cent of voters supporting a delay, including 48 per cent of Conservative voters and 45 per cent of Brexit Party supporters.
“The only question that matters now is what does Boris Johnson want to do – because if Boris Johnson decides it’s in his political interests to extend the transition I have no doubt that he could sell it,” says Mr Lowe.
“If he were to go on television and say ‘Look, I know I said we were going to have all this done and dusted by the end of the year, but the pandemic has eaten up a lot of time and we’re just going to need a little longer, I’m sure you all understand’, 90 per cent of the population would say, ‘Yeah, fair enough’.
“You’d have a few outliers who would grumble, but they’d be the same old people – he hasn’t got a general election to worry about for years. Of course he could change his mind on this and I actually think he has a very valid reason for doing so. So it’s still possible, however we will see.”
Indeed, a cynic might point out that the UK government has at every opportunity in the past four years denied it would ever extend anything to do with Brexit, and then equally always extended at the last minute.
But each of those times, the UK’s strategy was always to have someone else bounce them into a delay: usually parliament. With a huge parliamentary majority and the coronavirus crisis drowning out the required political mood music, it’s hard to see how the government could seem to be forced into an extension this time. Even Labour’s Keir Starmer on Monday refused to do the honours, saying he was not calling for a delay and would rather “the negotiations were completed as quickly as possible”.
This situation has led to another, very different theory about how Covid-19 might affect the politics of an extension.
“I think that the United Kingdom politicians and government have certainly decided that Covid is going to be blamed for all the fallout from Brexit and my perception of it is they don’t want to drag the negotiations out into 2021 because they can effectively blame Covid for everything,” the EU’s trade commissioner Phil Hogan theorised in public last week.
Under this account, which is circulating as much in Westminster as it is in Brussels, no-deal won’t be such a big deal, because the UK economy is already in the intensive care ward thanks to the coronavirus lockdown. What’s a few per cent of GDP between friends? But this line of thinking, Mr Lowe says, would be a mistake for political as well as economic reasons.
“The question for the British government becomes ‘do we really want another hit again so close to the Covid shock?’ and my argument would be ‘why do we want to do that?’,” he says.
“The argument is maybe the Covid-19 economic shock will mask any negative impact of Brexit, and potentially, but actually the shocks that come from Brexit are different to those that come from Covid-19 so I think it would be very silly. But then I’m not in charge.
“What Brexit does it it creates new barriers and friction on the food supply chains and that will be on top, additional to existing problems. Ignore GDP figures and like, but the day one impact of new entry and exist procedures being put in place at ports of entry and exit of the country will lead to some television moments – as in you will have the live footage of trucks backed up from Dover. That in itself is distinct from Covid-19.”
The EU, for its part, has said it is happy to facilitate an extension – but is aware of the political situation in the UK. Ireland’s deputy prime minister Simon Coveney spelt out the EU’s conundrum on Friday.
“I wouldn’t be raising expectations around the British government agreeing to seeking more time. If we’re going to have any chance of persuading them to take more time then we need to be careful about how we do that because demanding it from them … almost as a concession to the EU, is certainly not the way to do it,” he said.
How might that work in practice? Away from the cameras the EU has a cautious strategy to help the UK government move towards an extension if it chooses.
“I think the point that we’ve been making is you don’t have to request an extension, you just have to have the agreement of both sides,” one EU official close to negotiations told The Independent. “It sounds silly, but nobody has to request one, we just have to agree jointly and it doesn’t have to be anybody’s fault... I know it’s a nuance.”
A long shot? Perhaps, but one which provides the narrowest of openings and gives Johnson some more room for political manoeuvre. Alternatively, the British government could simply let the deadline pass now, and hope that it can bend the rules in December if an extension is really needed then. There are two schools of thought on this: an optimistic one that says a way will be found if it is needed, and a sceptical one that notes that inflexible treaties have caused bigger problems in the past than tariff barriers and quotas.
But one UK source close to negotiations thinks Covid-19 actually makes an extension even more unpalatable, and insists that they’re serious about not wanting to delay. The looming pandemic rescue package being cooked up in the EU, they argue, could herald a fundamental shift in EU policy that Britain never signed up for.
“They’ll be designing all sorts of new laws for the 27 – we don’t know what they’re going to be, what they’re going to cost, or whether they’re going to suit our conditions,” the UK government source said. “It does not seem sensible for us to be bound into an unpredictable situation.” The situation is, of course, already highly unpredictable.
“I’m not in the camp of people – and I should say other people who follow trade negotiations disagree on this – who think trade negotiations need to take a long time. I don’t think there is really any technical reason why they have to take seven years, for example,” says Mr Lowe.
“Could the trade agreement be done this year, even with the time wasted? Of course it could be, it just requires political decisions to be made and it to be decided in the UK in particular that they’re going to upset a few constituencies. Then it could be done.
“Is there still time to do it this year? Yeah, of course there is, I just think it’s massively irresponsible to do it this year because you’re asking businesses to adapt to a big change – whether there’s an agreement or not – right after they’ve had to deal with the fallout of a global pandemic and a recession.”
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