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BRUSSELS — Don’t be fooled by the angry tone: The EU’s deadline for the U.K. to drop its plan to break components of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement was less an ultimatum than a bit of friendly advice.
European Commission Vice President Maroš Šefčovič pointedly gave Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his government until the end of the month to revise legislation that would pick apart the Brexit treaty.
But if the U.K. ignores that demand, as Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove said will be the case, the EU knows it cannot force London’s hand.
For certain, the Commission will pursue all legal remedies — initiating a lengthy and uncertain process that in any event would serve mainly as a reminder that the EU believes Britain would be violating international law and that Johnson would be breaking his own word by breaching aspects of the Withdrawal Agreement that he himself negotiated.
But after 40 years of modeling much of what the EU does after London, sometimes Brussels knows Britain better than Britain knows itself. Most of the years following the 2016 Brexit referendum were spent watching the U.K. mired in fierce internal debate. EU officials know that many Brits regard respect for the rule of law and international commitments as core to the British national identity.
The Brexit transition period ends on December 31 and there is still wide disagreement between the U.K. and the EU on core components of a potential free-trade agreement.
Brussels knows legislation aimed at breaching the Withdrawal Agreement will not move painlessly through the House of Commons, especially given debate over ramifications for relations on the island of Ireland and the reaction from the United States.
Hence, the friendly advice from Šefčovič: There’s just no time for such debate and distraction. The Brexit transition period ends on December 31 and there is still wide disagreement between the U.K. and the EU on core components of a potential free-trade agreement.
Theoretically, the EU could break off the trade talks. It won’t.
If Johnson wants to torpedo the process, he will have to do so on his own. The EU negotiator, Michel Barnier, will work to the last minute to find agreement on all the issues, knowing neither the EU heads of state and government nor the European Parliament would ever approve the deal without an accompanying commitment by the U.K. to uphold the Withdrawal Agreement in full.
EU heads of state and government have no intention of changing Barnier’s negotiating mandate; and for sure they will not do so under threat by Downing Street of a treaty breach.
Make no mistake, the EU’s outrage over the U.K’s behavior is quite real. But professions of surprise not so much. EU leaders at the highest level have long expected the post-Brexit U.K. to “go rogue” — one way or another. The only questions were when, and precisely how.
“With the departure of Great Britain, a potential competitor will of course emerge for us,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in October 2019, before the divorce pact was agreed with London. “That is to say, in addition to China and the United States of America, there will be Great Britain as well.”
A trade deal with Johnson’s government has long been viewed as a longshot. The latest developments simply stretch the odds a bit further.
This insight is from POLITICO‘s Brexit Files newsletter, a daily afternoon digest of the best coverage and analysis of Britain’s decision to leave the EU available to Brexit Transition Pro subscribers. To request a trial, email email@example.com.