A deal between the United Kingdom and the European Union now looks “unlikely”, according to Michel Barnier. But is it just too soon for concessions?
As we burn through the half-way point in the transition period, Brexit talks have reached neither a breakthrough nor a breakdown.
That opinion, expressed this week by a Downing Street spokesperson, is one, at least, on which the EU would agree.
High-speed and high-level failure
The new political momentum which was supposed to have resulted from Boris Johnson and Ursula von der Leyen’s “high-level” meeting in June has failed to materialise.
“It is unfortunately clear that we will not reach in July the “early understanding on the principles underlying any agreement” that was set as an aim at the High Level Meeting on 15 June”
David Frost (UK’s Chief Negotiator), 23 July 2020
The high-speed diplomacy of week by week talks – in person, despite coronavirus – between the negotiating teams has also not had the desired result.
And yet no one, on either side of the Channel, is very surprised, nor giving up hope just yet.
True, Michel Barnier warned on Thursday that, right now, a deal is looking “unlikely”.
And both he and David Frost have voiced concerns about significant differences.
But there is still some time. And maybe that’s the point.
The clock is ticking
If either side, particular the UK, makes concessions now, a rumbling of discontent could be allowed to fester over the summer.
And there’s perhaps a fear in London, that if the UK moves too soon, Brussels will come back and ask for more come the Autumn.
For the EU, an agreement will be reached, ideally, before 15 October.
That would allow the EU27 to give the sign-off at their scheduled Autumn summit without having to give Brexit the limelight of stand-alone event.
November and December will be needed to get approval from the European Parliament, and to carry out the long process of completing the legal checks, and translating copies into the EU’s 24 official languages.
Although I understand that those two months can be squeezed down a little.
“My assessment is that agreement can still be reached in September, and that we should continue to negotiate with this aim in mind”, said David Frost on Thursday.
Despite his worries, Michel Barnier seemed to accept that if they can get over the sticking points, everything else will follow in quick succession.
Two down, two to go
Interestingly, although the deal isn’t going to be struck before the negotiators go on their summer holidays, neither side used the phrase “stalemate” this week.
That’s because there have, in fact, been some developments: Two of the four major sticking points are now a little less stuck.
There is at least the prospect of sorting out the disagreement on the role of the European Court of Justice. David Frost said the EU is now being “more pragmatic”.
And on the so-called governance structure, where the EU wanted one overarching so-called “Association Agreement”, the UK has moved away from its demand for a bundle of separate deals.
This is not insignificant progress. But.
Only two sticking points left…
Both sides said there has been “no progress” in the argument of a level playing field. Nor on fisheries.
The EU insists both are part of any economic agreement. Nor will it allow progress on any other topics, until everything moves forward.
That inevitably means the most difficult left until last.