Brexit deadlocks look set to remain a mainstay of the news cycle for the foreseeable future, as the European Union and the United Kingdom continue to operate on different wavelengths after concluding the latest round of talks on their future relationship.
In a unilateral statement released following the conclusion of the videoconference, UK chief Brexit negotiator, David Frost, optimistically suggested that a “Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement, with other key agreements on issues like law enforcement, civil nuclear, and aviation alongside” could be completed “without major difficulties” before the end of the year. On the other hand, he states his regret that “very little progress” had been made “on the most significant outstanding issues” between the EU and the UK.
Frost states that the sticking point is “the EU’s insistence on including a set of novel and unbalanced proposals on the so-called ‘level playing field’ which would bind [the UK] to EU law or standards, or determine [the UK’s] domestic legal regimes”, which would act as a “major obstacle” to an agreement being signed. The ‘level playing field’ refers to an agreed framework of common rules and standards both sides would have to obey in any trade agreement, with the aim of preventing either from gaining a competitive advantage through provision of a less regulated market environment following the transition period. Methods of ensuring a ‘level playing field’ could include harmonised workers’ rights, taxation and/or state aid policies between the EU and the UK.
“As soon as the EU recognises that we will not conclude an agreement on that basis, we will be able to make progress”, he states. Further issues are raised with the EU’s fisheries proposal which Frost states is “incompatible with [the UK’s] future status as an independent coastal state”. He also criticises the EU for an “ideological approach” which he claims is making it “more difficult to reach a mutually beneficial agreement”.
The picture painted by the EU side of the negotiating table is not much rosier. Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, stated in a press conference following the negotiations that while “useful points” had been made in trade of goods, “the UK hasn’t entered into a real discussion” regarding the ‘level playing field’ – a matter which the EU sees as essential in any free-trade agreement with the UK. “Economic and trade fair play is not for sale”, he later states. Despite all this, the EU’s goal, according to Barnier, continues to be a free trade agreement between the two negotiating parties.
Tensions have risen further following Michael Gove’s comments regarding the rights of UK citizens within the EU, and, separately, due to the potential for custom checks at ports in Northern Ireland to become the norm following the transition period.
UK Chief Brexit Negotiator David Frost
One thing is clear from all of this: there is still a long way to go before any potential agreement is reached. While the UK may insist it is entirely possible for a deal to be reached before the transition period ends on the 31st December 2020, the faith they’re putting in their ability to do so is enormous when compared to the time needed for previous agreements to be reached between the EU and external trade partners. For example, a trade deal between the EU and Mercosur, a South American trade bloc with a GDP exceeding that of the UK, took twenty years, and the trade deal between the EU and Canada took seven.
Of course, the specifics of these two trade agreements were different to those currently concerning the EU and the UK, but to have one by 2021 is a tall order. Were negotiations going smoothly it would take an optimist of extreme proportions to confidently predict a fully comprehensive agreement before the end of the year, but these negotiations appear to be going anything but smoothly. Even if we can ignore both the hypocrisy of the UK’s chief Brexit negotiator in criticising the EU’s “ideological approach”, when he himself is party to the greatest exercise of ideological irrationality in recent memory, and his unrealistic expectation that the EU is even remotely capable of disrobing itself from its cloak of historical necessity, the accusatory tone is hardly indicative of an imminent agreement.
On the other hand, Barnier’s assertion that the UK hasn’t yet entered a “real discussion” on the ‘level playing field’ strikes of the usual arrogance the EU exhibits when confronted with dissident voices – the loudest of which are Brexit supporters. To say this is a pet peeve of many Brexiteers would be an understatement, but the EU’s arrogance is as justifiable to its establishment as it is unsavoury to its opponents. On one side of the table are 27 nations, each of which with a veto, generally willing to cooperate with each other and posing a united front; on the other side a grouping of 4 nations with a total GDP six-and-a-half times smaller than that of the EU, two of which opposed Brexit in the first place and have a large proportion of their respective populations and political establishments agitating for independence. No matter what Brexiteers might suggest, it’s clear who’s in greater need of the other.
Throwing another spanner in the works are the findings of a recent survey by The British Foreign Policy Group, which suggests that feelings within the UK towards those outside the EU have soured, whilst their feelings towards those inside it have improved. Most notably in terms of Brexit, the survey found that the proportion of Britons who felt that the US would be a “responsible global actor” is less than 30%; with the “considerable fall in public perceptions of the United States as a ‘responsible’ global actor [being] most pronounced in both Brexit heartlands and ‘Red Wall’ areas”.
Following on from this, in what could be a headache for Boris Johnson, the majority of the UK government’s staunchest supporters don’t trust in the US to act in a responsible manner on the global stage; 55% of Conservative voters believed the US would act responsibly in January, before dropping to 43% in May. With one of the key arguments put forward in favour of Brexit being Britain’s ability to negotiate free trade agreements around the world, the US being the obvious example, this level of mistrust does not present the British public as being enthusiastically optimistic about the chances of a mutually beneficial trade deal being reached between the two parties post-Brexit. In contrast to the US, the EU are trusted to act responsibly by 60% of those surveyed, with Germany by far the most trusted nation with over 70% of respondents indicating that they trusted them to behave in a responsible manner.
Of course, as with all surveys, this is only a snapshot in time – in a strange time, with COVID-19 having overtaken Brexit by far as the biggest international issue in the UK, as attested to by over 70% of the respondents. However, it does suggest at the very least that British public opinion on both Brexit and international relations are subject to change at the moment. Should this trend not reverse, but remain static or accelerate in the coming months, where will it leave the Brexit negotiations? Will Britain continue to take a hard line in negotiations, continually refusing to be drawn on the question of extending the transition period and thus risking leaving with no deal at the end of the year? Or will they soften their approach in order to maximise chances of striking a deal with the EU but potentially feeling the ire of the most hardcore of Brexiteers, whose figurehead in the form of Nigel Farage has already proven enormously capable of mobilising the masses against the establishment?
Regardless of what approach is taken, there’s not a lot of time for both the EU and the UK to make their mind up regarding an extension, assuming either party hasn’t already privately done so – the withdrawal agreement states that any extension would have to be agreed by July 1st.
The next round of talks between the EU and the UK are scheduled for the beginning of June, and with crunch time getting nearer and nearer, it’s imperative that some constructive dialogue is carried out in the coming months… before it’s too late.