As Brexit pressure builds, EU red lines shine bright
With talks down to the wire, some EU27 countries insist 'no deal' is better than a bad deal.
The EU might yet split over Brexit — but it wouldn’t be in London’s favor.
Senior EU officials and diplomats say that several countries — including France, the Netherlands and Spain — are worried that the EU’s mission-focused chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, may be too eager to conclude a deal with the U.K. side, and that EU heads of state and government will have to step in to stop an agreement that is worse for the bloc than a no-deal scenario.
Overall, EU27 officials, and officials in the EU institutions in Brussels, would much prefer to reach an agreement.
But the rising anxiety, particularly in three countries with such close ties to Britain, and their emphasis that the EU27 should not accept a deal at any price, highlights how badly the atmosphere was poisoned by the U.K.’s Internal Market Bill, and the willingness of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government to unpick unilaterally some of the key provisions of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement.
“We prefer an agreement but not a bad deal,” said a senior EU diplomat who is following the talks closely. “But the difficulties remain and the U.K. has not moved enough on fundamental questions that would allow us to have an economically balanced deal, including fisheries, governance and level-playing field.”
With national EU27 leaders largely preoccupied by the coronavirus emergency, there is relatively little attention being paid in Continental capitals to Brexit and the late-stage negotiations with the U.K. As a result, several officials and diplomats said there was greater pressure on Barnier than at any other point in the four-year process, along with higher risks than ever of a disconnect even as Barnier and his team provide constant updates and briefings.
The officials and diplomats described the negotiator as walking a tightrope between trying to secure a historic agreement with London and the unwillingness of the EU27 to shift their brightest red line regarding a so-called “level playing field” — making sure that the U.K. cannot undercut the bloc after it has left.
Other diplomats said that with Barnier reaching the EU’s mandatory retirement age in January there were concerns that the veteran French statesman would be understandably determined to seal his own legacy by clinching a historic accord with Britain, and that given his marching orders to negotiate until the very last minute, it could be difficult to accept that “no deal” could be a better outcome for EU citizens and businesses.
“There’s full trust in Barnier but sometimes I think that a deal would be a kind of life achievement for him, and he could have temptations to compromise not in line with the feelings in some capitals,” said an EU diplomat who works on Brexit.
One high-level EU official, who is briefed regularly on the talks, described the negotiations as a “thriller” — with the outcome still very much a real-life cliff-hanger.
“It is very difficult to predict what will happen,” the official said. “If you remember [the U.K.] expressed several times deadlines, finally they didn’t follow the deadlines that they expressed and we know exactly what are the fundamental difficulties and we know exactly what is the European red line: we are ready on the one hand to propose a trade agreement, zero-tariff, zero-quota, but of course with a level playing field.”
Carry on negotiating
Several EU officials expressed concern that the departure of Johnson’s chief adviser Dominic Cummings did not appear to result in any softening from the U.K.’s chief negotiator, David Frost. Others in Brussels said that such expectations of a more conciliatory approach amounted to wishful thinking.
A second EU diplomat said that amid rising unease, it was likely EU leaders would talk about Brexit during a videoconference on Thursday, even though the meeting is intended to focus on the coronavirus pandemic. “Member states are becoming more and more impatient,” the second diplomat said. “Of course everybody prefers a deal,” the second diplomat added. “But if the prospects of a deal are too limited, then the Commission should urgently table the contingency proposals.”
Uncertainty about when Barnier will brief EU ambassadors has only increased anxiety. “Capitals are getting too nervous that they don’t know what’s going on in the important last phase of the process,” the second diplomat said. “Of course we trust the Commission, and they very well know all the red lines, but the pressure from capitals is increasing.”
The senior EU diplomat envisioned two scenarios under which negotiators fail to reach an agreement that can be implemented before the end of the Brexit transition period on December 31 — one bad, and one worse.
“The EU will negotiate right to the end because it’s in its DNA,” the senior diplomat said. In the bad scenario, the diplomat said “it is impossible to reach a deal because it’s too complex to meet the deadlines and the U.K. has not been able to make its choice under the necessary deadline and things are done without acrimony.” In that case, the senior diplomat said, negotiations could continue on friendly terms after the two sides have fallen back on World Trade Organization rules.
In the worse scenario, the current talks break off angrily and it will take a long time to resume discussions. “If there’s no deal and things become more acrimonious, and it doesn’t go well, it will be more complicated and will take more time,” the senior diplomat said, adding that the U.K. seemed overly focused on breaking with the EU rather than forging a new future.
Deal or no deal?
Whether the two sides are on course to reach a deal or not depends on who you talk to. One EU official said there had been a step-change in approach this week with better engagement on the British side on the level playing field issue and more trust from the EU side that Britain will keep its word, despite the upset over the Internal Market Bill.
The official said a head to head between the two chief negotiators on Thursday could prove a “moment of truth.” If there is thought to have been sufficient progress, the U.K. team could remain in Brussels for talks over the weekend.
A U.K. official played down the prospect of weekend talks, but did say negotiations had been more positive this week. Others on the EU side were less optimistic.
Even if Barnier and Frost reach an accord in coming days, it would still need approval by the 27 EU leaders. as well as ratification by the European Parliament. And if a deal seems to bend or break red lines that the Council set out in its original negotiating mandate, officials and diplomats said they could envision the once-unthinkable scenario of the Council refusing to back Barnier.
Observers expect a deal early next week or in the first week of December. There are worries that after that the timetable for ratification could be too tight for the deal to be in place for January 1.
A Commission official close to Barnier conceded that nothing could be certain, but expressed confidence that the seasoned negotiator was totally in sync with the Council and the Parliament. “He takes nothing for granted,” the Commission official said. “But don’t forget that Michel Barnier has been constantly in touch with member states and the European Parliament for four years now. He frequently briefs them and listens to them.”
But a second senior EU diplomat said it was high time for the Commission to seriously brace for the prospect of no deal.
“We need to roll out the contingency measures because January 1 is getting close and we must collectively discuss our safety net,” the second senior diplomat said. “That’s an important issue to be done this week.”
This diplomat specified that such safety nets must be established for such everyday matters as passenger flights and freight transport, and that coordination was key because technically every EU country could establish its own arrangements with London once the U.K. is fully outside the EU.
“We want to do this as 27,” the second senior diplomat said. “Because we don’t want that there are different rules applying for Zaventem in Belgium than for Schipol or for Charles de Gaulle.”
Maïa de La Baume, Jacopo Barigazzi, Emilio Casalicchio and Hans von der Burchard contributed reporting.