Boris Johnson heads to Brussels with Brexit talks still stuck

UK dropped threat to breach international law but EU still gloomy about prospects for a deal.

Boris Johnson heads to Brussels with Brexit talks still stuck

Move over, Brexit negotiators.

Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson will on Wednesday take over Brexit talks from their chief negotiators. The EU’s Michel Barnier and the U.K.’s David Frost have been ordered to sum up the remaining obstacles for their respective bosses, who will look each other in the eye for the first time since Britain formally left the EU in January.

Both sides have long pushed for more political engagement from the other. After all, Brussels has not forgotten how Johnson massively backtracked on his initial positions in the endgame of the negotiations of the Withdrawal Agreement, which the two sides signed up to last year. On the other side, London hoped the involvement of EU leaders such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel would help introduce more flexibility into what it sees as Barnier’s rigid negotiating mandate.

Political attention on both sides of the Channel has focused on the pandemic and its devastating economic impact. But with the end of the transition period and its cliff edge fast approaching at the end of the year, Brexit has moved back up the agenda.

Despite the ticking clock and leader’s involvement, officials on both sides say the EU and the U.K. remain some distance apart. The gaps in the areas of discord — fisheries, the so-called level playing field to British business undercutting the bloc, and the governance of any deal — are still substantial.

Barnier delivered another downbeat assessment of the state of the negotiations to EU affairs ministers on Tuesday. Afterward, German Minister of State for Europe Michael Roth said that there are still “fundamental differences” and that whether the leaders will be able to bridge that divide “is still completely uncertain.”

The two sides can’t even agree on what to expect from the dinner itself. “The purpose of the in-person meeting will be to see if there’s a political way through and it remains the PM’s ambition to try and meet a free-trade agreement,” a Downing Street spokesperson said.

On the EU side, on the other hand, a Commission spokesperson said: “This is not where the negotiations happen.” The goal of the meeting is to “try and lift substantial impasses so that then the negotiators can continue their work.”

Landing zone unclear

It’s hard to see a landing zone that respects the red lines on each side, and each side stresses their room for maneuver is limited.

EU countries have repeatedly warned the European Commission that concessions to date are already on the red line and Barnier shouldn’t think of crossing them.

French Europe Minister Clémént Beaune repeated on Tuesday that France would veto a post-Brexit trade deal if it considered it “bad” regarding fishing rights or the so-called level playing field. While France might be the most vocal country, other EU affairs ministers such as Belgium’s Sophie Wilmès also indicated at Tuesday’s meeting that they don’t want an agreement at any price and asked the Commission to step up its no deal preparations. Barnier echoed that sentiment after the meeting, tweeting that there’s “full unity” and that “we will never sacrifice our future for the present. Access to our market comes with conditions.”

While some countries, such as Spain, are pushing for pragmatism in order to reach a deal, there is no indication that the bloc is prepared to shift its negotiating mandate or brightest red lines on the outstanding issues.

London on Tuesday also stressed its limited room for compromise. A U.K. spokesperson said “we must be realistic that any agreement may not be possible as we will not compromise on reclaiming U.K. sovereignty.”

Of course, that might all be negotiating tactics to push the other side toward concessions and avoid a no-deal scenario on January 1.

One more positive sign Tuesday was agreement by the two sides on Tuesday on how to implement the Withdrawal Agreement, and in particular when it comes to rules on trade with Northern Ireland.

The U.K. also promised to drop proposed laws that the EU had warned would undermine the Withdrawal Agreement. The controversial clauses from the U.K. Internal Market Bill had poisoned the atmosphere around the trade talks, leading to a breach of trust between London and Brussels, but the U.K. government said its concerns that had prompted this proposed legislation had now been resolved rendering them unnecessary.

While the successful conclusion of the discussions over the Withdrawal Agreement and the U.K. promise to scrap its proposed laws were officially greeted positively in Brussels, they aren’t seen as an olive branch or a sign of good faith. The EU was so offended by London’s intensions not to honor the Brexit divorce deal that it merely sees this as a return to normality — something the U.K. should never have done in the first place.

Charlie Cooper, Cristina Gallardo, David M. Herszenhorn and Hans von der Burchard contributed reporting.