Politics Explained

Can a no-deal Brexit still be avoided – or is it too late?

Europe’s exasperated groans about the stalling Brexit progress are growing louder, writes Sean O'Grady. Should we accept there isn’t enough time left to thrash out a deal?

Thursday 27 August 2020 17:58 BST
The EU’s Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier recently said trade talks were ‘going backwards more than forwards’
The EU’s Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier recently said trade talks were ‘going backwards more than forwards’ (Reuters)

It is a worrying (at least for some) index of how badly the UK-EU trade talks are going that the German government has dropped the item from the next meeting of the EU’s college of ambassadors. There is simply nothing to report back on, and nothing for the 27 diplomats to confer with their respective governments about. As the current holders of the EU’s rotating presidency, the German government is entitled to propose such a move; there appears to have been no objection among the rest of the EU’s member states.

By now, according to the more rosy predictions made in the 2016 referendum campaign, the Europeans and the British would have moved past the transition period and already been trading freely, and on a scale and manner not so very different to when the UK was a full member of the customs union and single market – minus the obligations around free movement of labour and the EU budget. Even ardent Remainers assumed that “leaving” the EU would probably entail continuing engagement with the customs union and/or the single market, in whole or in part.

This is why non-EU states such as, variously, Norway, Switzerland, Turkey and Ukraine who had trade and economic arrangements with the EU were often cited as possible models. So were the EU free trade deals being negotiated with the likes of Canada and Japan. Brexiteers also say that the EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier suggested a “bare bones” free trade deal (no tariffs or quotas) as one of the “sliding scale” of options, shown as steps on a slide at a presentation during the early phase of Brexit. The (non binding) UK-EU Political Declaration, agreed and published alongside the (binding) UK-EU Withdrawal Treaty last October also envisages a broad economic and political partnership of some sort.

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