Michel Barnier, the European Union’s chief negotiator, gave a downbeat assessment of the trade deal talks when he updated EU ambassadors before resuming talks in Brussels with David Frost, his UK counterpart.
“There hasn’t been much progress,” one EU insider told me. Other sources suggested the two sides had moved closer on the issue of fisheries. What is clear is that Saturday’s hour-long phone call between Boris Johnson and Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president, did not create much wriggle room for their respective negotiators. The pair will speak again this evening.
Despite hints that tonight would be the latest deadline, there are signs Johnson would be happy for the talks to run on until a two-day summit of EU leaders, starting on Thursday.
He may hope that Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, will then broker a compromise among the 27 EU members that would land a deal. She is keener to avoid no deal than Emmanuel Macron, the French president. But Johnson would be foolish to rely on the EU’s big two falling out. They will probably agree a common position; they have to live together when the UK finally departs the EU stage.
Conflicting signals from the negotiations might be good news. Having covered EU summits since 1987, and spent far too many hours in the middle of the night waiting for them to conclude, I recall several where reports of a breakthrough were initially denied but ultimately came true.
The noises from London are slightly more pessimistic than in Brussels. Both sides want to show domestic audiences they are negotiating hard. They will do so in public, and try to bounce their opponent into swallowing things before they are ready.
A key element in this high-stakes poker game will be who blinks first. The endgame is usually about such choreography. There is a deal to be done: a natural trade-off between the EU allowing Johnson to trumpet a victory on fisheries, in return for the UK accepting some but not all EU demands on the level playing field – on how closely the UK will stick to EU rules on the environment, workers’ rights and state aid for business, and how these would be policed.
Yet agreement is not guaranteed. Johnson will be looking over his shoulder at the Brexit ultras in the European Research Group (ERG). After keeping their heads down since the election a year ago, they have popped up again. Their lawyers are ready to rule on whether an agreement preserves British sovereignty. They express confidence that Johnson will not sell them out, but also threaten to force a Tory leadership contest to topple him if he does.
True, the ERG brought down Theresa May. But the bark of the terriers snapping at Johnson’s heels is worse than their bite. About 80 mobilised against May. Today, some in that group recognise they have secured a hard Brexit, even if the prime minister softens a few edges to land a deal. These MPs know their voters are more concerned about the coronavirus and living standards than Brexit.
The ERG has won the war, and yet still looks for one more battle; it is never, ever satisfied. About 25 hardcore Eurosceptics might condemn concessions by Johnson as “Brino” – Brexit in name only, which would be untrue but would make them feel good and buy them some airtime. But, in a sharp contrast to the May era, a deal would still pass the Commons because Labour would either support it or abstain. So Johnson is in an infinitely stronger position than May.
There are plenty of reasons why Johnson should make the necessary compromises. After his troubles on coronavirus, he needs a political success, not the failure of no deal. Although he would blame that on the EU, the buck for the disruption at the borders on 1 January might stop with him. Andrew Bailey, the Bank of England governor, has warned that the long-term economic damage would be worse than from the coronavirus pandemic.
No deal would be the best Christmas present Nicola Sturgeon could privately wish for. It would surely enable the Scottish National Party to win a mandate for a second independence referendum in next May’s Scottish parliament elections. Is the break-up of the UK really a price worth paying to ensure the hardest possible Brexit? It would become Johnson’s political epitaph.
A panicky Tory party might even boot him out because he is so toxic in Scotland, installing Rishi Sunak to front the referendum. No deal would mean continuing diplomatic war with the EU, and inevitable tensions over Northern Ireland, scuppering Johnson’s attempt to forge a close relationship with Joe Biden.
This final act of the Brexit drama will probably be resolved by one person. Not Macron, Merkel or von der Leyen, but Johnson. His ministers suspect he is genuinely conflicted as he weighs up whether the deal on the table protects UK sovereignty.
It will be like the moment he wrote a pro-Remain and pro-Leave article in 2016 before deciding which way to jump. For the country’s sake, he needs to press the right button this time and do the deal.
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