European Union officials say it’s make-your-mind-up time for Boris Johnson. Does he want a trade deal with the bloc, or not?
Another week of negotiations — one that was supposed to be decisive — will end Friday with little progress made in the main areas of disagreement, according to three EU officials familiar with the situation. While both sides can see what a final agreement would look like, Brussels officials insist that reaching one will require the U.K. prime minister to move first, a stance their British counterparts reject.
The exit of one of Johnson’s top aide less than 50 days before the U.K. is due to leave the single market, and the planned departure of another, has injected fresh uncertainty into the process. EU officials have been left speculating whether the departure of two of the most senior figures from the Leave campaign in Downing Street has increased or reduced the likelihood that the prime minister will walk away without a deal.
In the negotiating room, there was little movement this week on the three key issues that have bedeviled the talks for the past eight months — the level playing field for business, access to U.K. fishing waters, and how any accord is enforced.
Progress on the first has been hampered by the U.K.’s reluctance to make specific commitments to abide by any future changes in the bloc’s rules, EU officials said. While both sides are inching closer to agreement on how any deal will be enforced, the U.K. is resisting EU calls for disagreements over the level playing field and fisheries to be included in any wider dispute-resolution system.
Onus on Johnson?
EU officials blame the lack of progress on Johnson, saying he hasn’t decided whether he is prepared to compromise to reach a deal or not.
A U.K. official disputed that characterization, saying it’s a sign the bloc has finally realized that Britain isn’t prepared to cave in on points of principle. Johnson “wants a deal if there is a deal to be had,” the official said. “We need to see some realism and creativity from their side if we are to bridge the significant gaps that remain.”
Both sides had previously pinpointed Oct. 15 as the deadline to reach an accord to allow enough time for their respective parliaments to ratify any agreement. But the negotiations will now run beyond the additional three weeks scheduled. Talks will resume in Brussels on Monday, and the EU has suggested it is prepared to continue the deliberations into December if necessary, two people said.
The departure Wednesday of Lee Cain, Johnson’s senior media adviser, has irked Brexiters in Downing Street, including Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s most powerful adviser and architect of the winning Leave campaign in the 2016 referendum. Cumminngs on Thursday quit his post and will leave by the end of the year, a person familiar with the matter said.
David Frost, Johnson’s chief Brexit negotiator, and Oliver Lewis, his deputy, were also unhappy — but have decided to stay on, according to people familiar with the matter.
European officials find it notoriously difficult to read British politics — but that hasn’t stopped them from trying to work out what the power struggle in Downing Street means for Brexit.
One senior EU official speculated that Frost’s decision to stay put raises the chance a deal won’t be reached because of his ties to Cain and Cummings, who at one stage favored walking away from the negotiations.
But people closer to the talks say that Frost is working hard toward a deal and that his decision to stay makes one more likely. Having been picked by Johnson last year to lead the negotiations, he has since been promoted to the role of National Security Adviser, a post he is set to take up when the Brexit talks have been concluded. That means he has a personal stake in getting an agreement, according to a person familiar with the U.K. side.
With the row in Downing Street in full swing, Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator and Frost’s counterpart, took a break from negotiations to offer his own view on the deliberations:
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— With assistance by Tim Ross, Kitty Donaldson, and Alex Morales