Brexit Brinkmanship

Both sides of the Brexit negotiations spent the weekend locked in talks in Brussels.

With no sign of a deal in place by the end of Sunday, as hoped, the UK and EU negotiators agreed instead to extend the talks beyond the 13 December deadline – which some have taken to mean that a deal of some kind can be reached in the coming days.

While it is difficult to know how much progress, if any, was made, by the end of the weekend Prime Minister Boris Johnson seemed to be bracing for a “no-deal” outcome. He said the UK should be ready “for WTO terms, Australia terms” from 1 January, as the two sides are “still very far apart on key issues”.

However, he added that “there’s still a deal to be done” and reiterated that “either way, the UK will do very, very well”. Johnson also promised that the UK would not walk away from the talks.

President of the EU Commission Ursula von der Leyen struck a slightly more optimistic tone, stating that both sides think “it is responsible at this point in time to go the extra mile” and to see “whether an agreement can be reached at this late stage”.

The three main issues that are proving to be stumbling blocks are access to UK fishing waters, fair business competition, and governance. On the second point, which has also been referred to as ‘level playing field’ measures, the EU would like the UK to abide by rules for businesses around environmental issues and workers’ rights, but the UK is arguing that it wants to be free from EU regulations entirely.

Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, tweeted: “Fair competition, and a sustainable solution for our fishermen and women, are key to reaching a deal.”

The final transition deadline is 31 December 2020 so there is a mounting sense of urgency on both sides to negotiate a deal. If one is not agreed, both sides will face tariffs on imports and exports on food and other goods.

There are signs that both the UK and EU believe there is still a chance of agreeing a deal this week after talks resumed on Monday (14 December). The question now though is whether MPs and European heads of state will have time, or even be given an opportunity, to ratify any deal that does emerge, given the looming deadline.